Winston Churchill once said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” While this past year has certainly put many schools into crisis mode, I believe that my school’s response has resulted in us being stronger today than we were before the pandemic began.
As the pandemic broke, Bornblum Jewish Community School (Memphis, TN) was nearing completion of a three-year strategic plan which included, amongst other significant changes, the creation of two significant positions: Director of Curriculum and Instruction and Director of Student Services. The school leadership and board committed to the goal of moving forward rather than sliding backward during the pandemic, and the implantation of those two roles placed the focus squarely on the school’s academic achievement while attending to the individual needs and social and emotional well-being of the students. Although each of these Directors spent considerable time this year working on our COVID protocols, each has also put together a five-year plan for helping our school push forward.
In addition, we knew that moving the school forward meant having on-campus learning for the 2020-2021 school year from day one, while ensuring that we provided an equally robust learning experience for the 10-15 percent of our students who started the year learning from home. Our system needed to provide flexibility for students who would need to stay home short or long term due to COVID precautions.
Technology for Distance Learning
Creating a synchronous learning plan that would ensure that our distance learners would receive equivalent learning opportunities to our on-campus students required an investment in technology. We boosted our WiFi capabilities, increased our network licenses, and equipped each classroom with multiple cameras and microphones to allow for a full classroom view as well as an up-close view of the teacher. We purchased new laptops for 4th and 5th grade students, upgraded iPads for kindergarten through 3rd grades (our Middle School students have long had laptops for school), and integrated all classrooms by putting our Jewish and General studies teachers in the same room so that every teacher could have equal access to technology.
As we considered each of these upgrades in technology we regularly asked ourselves if these purchases would be both useful and mission-aligned post-COVID. For example, instead of purchasing webcams that would be permanently mounted in our classrooms, we chose to purchase free standing webcams that can be moved to other locations in the event that we want to livestream programs. Microphones and voice amplifiers can be used when classes move outdoors. And the upgraded networking capabilities will allow us to use technology in the classrooms without worry of WiFi or network slowdowns for the foreseeable future.
Coincidentally, just prior to COVID, we had begun to explore Microsoft Teams and its potential use in our daily classroom teaching. Once the pandemic hit we adopted the video streaming to be used both for our online learners and in the classroom. Through Teams, students can access and share files and interact with their teachers whether in school or at home. Going forward, these capabilities will allow us to reduce the number of school absences for students. On days when they are too sick to come to school but are not too sick to learn, we are able to provide them real-time instruction, which reduces the teachers’ need to reteach material when a child returns to school. Additionally, the ability to quickly pivot to online learning when necessary has eliminated the need to cancel school due to external factors such as the weather. Six days of inclement weather this year became days where virtual learning was balanced by adequate time to play in the snow.
Successfully being on campus this year forced us to reexamine our outdoor spaces and how they could be used more effectively, both to help mitigate the spread of COVID and to provide teachers and students mask-free time. Applying our guiding question of “Can we use this post-COVID?” we looked at the possibilities to use our outdoor spaces to promote a physically and mentally healthy learning environment. An outdoor classroom/chapel which had fallen into disrepair was refurbished and became available as a classroom and tefilla space, and we added three additional covered areas as classrooms and eating areas. We purchased folding chairs for each student so that they could take their own seat outside with them for flexible seating.
COVID inspired us to use our outdoor spaces more fully, and has reinforced our understanding of the power these spaces hold to engage students and promote learning across the curriculum. We created an integrated learning program using our gardens, allowing each class to have its own bed to plant vegetables, flowers, and herbs. These gardens created many opportunities for curricular connections in both general and Jewish studies. For example, first-grade students harvested mint which they planted and grew for a “Tea Party”, complete with etiquette lessons and Hebrew vocabulary. Kindergarten students planted carrots (gezer) for their theme of being “to-gezer(together)”. Middle School students, who planted kale, harvested their crop and learned to search for bugs as kashrut inspectors, and then made kale chips for a healthy snack. In the coming year, we plan to increase our integration of the gardens in Jewish studies by using them to teach about Israeli agriculture, geography and geology, and Biblical/Mishnaic agricultural laws.
Motivated to expand these opportunities, we raised funds to add a weather station, a greenhouse, a butterfly garden, a composting station, new outdoor games, and plans for a chicken coop to be installed this summer. The butterfly garden will include benches to allow students to have a space for relaxation, socializing, quiet reflective learning, and small group discussions, as well as serve as a classroom. Reimagining the butterfly garden as a unique educational opportunity has sparked new thinking about using the other new outdoor classrooms in unique ways.
This article focused almost exclusively on the educational push which COVID gave us. There were certainly significant developments on the administrative side, including fundraising, community involvement, and recruitment. It is hard to pinpoint precisely how COVID played a role in those areas, but the net results include increases in enrollment, fundraising dollars, and number of donors, which we hope will continue beyond COVID as well.
Many schools and students around the world have experienced an unimaginable loss of learning during this pandemic. By embracing the challenge as an opportunity to reevaluate, it is fair to say that we have not wasted this crisis.
Daniel R. Weiss is the Head of School at Bornblum Jewish Community School in Memphis, TN. He is completing his Doctorate at Northeastern University in Educational Leadership. Daniel and his wife Jessica are parents to three boys, all current day school students.