(COVID) Inspired Scheduling
Prior to the pandemic, the teachers and administrators at SAR High School frequently discussed student stress. We had, at times, sought to address it through various initiatives, some modest and some bold. As the pandemic raged last spring and we began to imagine the 2020-21 school year, we decided, first, to create more “down time” for students to alleviate the increased stress of this new reality. We adjusted our weekly schedule so that school would no longer end at 5:10; instead, dismissal was at 4:20 three days a week, 3:45 one day a week and 1:10 on Fridays. All disciplines had their instructional time reduced in order to create space for the earlier dismissal.
As this remarkable school year progressed, we began to consider some of the changes that we wanted to retain after the pandemic. Would Zoom be a permanent daily feature? The strong consensus is that we should be grateful for what Zoom afforded us during the pandemic but rely on it less going forward. What about other pandemic-related initiatives? After surveying parents, students, and teachers, we found broad support for maintaining an earlier dismissal time. With a bit of restructuring, our dismissal time for the upcoming school year is set for 4:35. We anticipate that students will have more free time to engage in activities that interest them. Some students will have free time before they eat dinner. Some students may get a head start on homework or studying. Others may hang out with friends. By creating a new block of time, we want students to have more control over the rhythm of their day.
After shifting dismissal time, we then lessened stress by reducing the number of assessments allowed per week. Pre-pandemic, underclassmen had up to three major assessments per week and upperclassmen had four. This year, all students were allowed only two major assessments per week. We found that, although some of the assessments included more material, student stress was lowered with fewer evenings devoted to studying. Teachers have also experimented with alternative assessments like projects and group work in order to promote and gauge student learning. By lessening our reliance on tests, we not only reduce student stress, but also work toward a less test-focused school day.
As we rethought tests, we then considered not only their frequency but also the ways in which they are administered. Specifically, we reconsidered the phenomenon of timed tests. Most teachers do not care how quickly a student completes a test, nor do teachers teach students how to answer questions quickly. In fact, most teachers place greater value on deliberation and careful thought when taking an exam. The primary purpose of timed exams was logistical: if a student does not finish the test in the 40-minute class period, they will be late to their next class. We aimed to find a way to let every student finish tests at their own pace but without disrupting life at school. We also wondered whether flexibly-timed tests would affect learning and student anxiety. After piloting a plan in a Gemara class and a math class, we gathered feedback indicating that learning improved and that students’ stress and anxiety decreased simply by knowing that they could finish the test at their own pace. Therefore, for the upcoming school year, we are introducing a plan in our ninth and tenth grades for flexibly-timed tests. We’ve created two weekly test periods before a lunch period. Tests will take place during these periods, not during regular class time. Whether a student has a learning disability that qualifies them for extended time or not, they will be able to extend their time into the lunch period that follows. Our expectation is that many students will finish their test during the allotted class period but that nearly all students will complete their tests with 50% extended time. With this new system, we will test a student’s knowledge rather than their speed.
The pandemic has helped us become more attentive to the stress our students experience. While many of its causes are beyond the purview of school, we can shift some levers to reduce our students’ stress and anxiety. Over the next two years, we aim to gauge the success of these initiatives and do our best to foster a school environment that is reflective about our students’ social and emotional wellbeing and their educational growth.
Jonathan Kroll serves as principal at SAR High School. Previously he was Head of School at Katz Yeshiva High School of South Florida. He began his career in Jewish education teaching at the Yeshivah of Flatbush. Rabbi Kroll earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees as well as semicha from Yeshiva University.