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Online classes up and running in Vancouver

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As public and independent schools in British Columbia scramble to find a way to continue teaching in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Greater Vancouver’s five Jewish day schools are priding themselves on online classes that are all ready up, running and working out the kinks they experience along the way.

Timing is everything and in this case the timing for Passover break was clearly in the favour of the Jewish schools. “In early March, when the B.C. Ministry of Education told us to start preparing for isolation, we were in the rare position of being open while the public and independent schools were closed for their two-week spring break,” said Emily Greenberg, head of school at Vancouver Talmud Torah (VTT). “In a twist of fate it ended up putting the Jewish day schools as the front-runners in education.”

VTT took a week to train staff how to teach on the new platforms, and as of March 23 the elementary school with 474 students was back up and running, using Google classroom and live chats as community hours.

A week into the online sessions, Greenberg said feedback has been incredibly positive. “For the most part our families are very happy with the product. We’ll use the Passover break to do some final tweaks that ensure our kids are on track to meet the curricular requirements for the year, so we don’t lose time.

“I feel certain we’ll meet the vast majority of the curriculum requirements for the year,” she continued. “A huge piece of our core competencies is social-emotional learning, and I think the perspectives kids are gaining from this experience will contribute to that learning. For children who are not engaging in the process it will be more complicated, but we’re working on providing individual support to families that need it.”

The heads of school at the five Jewish day schools are working together on an unprecedented level, sharing communications and counselling each other on what works and what doesn’t. “We’ve started conversations with King David High School about having their students tutor our students, and we’re always looking for additional ways to find meaningful connections for the schools,” Greenberg said. 

Russ Klein, head of school at KDHS, said he was astonished at the extent to which his staff has risen to the challenge of continuing classes online in a matter of three days.

“This is outside everyone’s comfort zone. Not only did staff have to learn Zoom, a new online platform, they also had to learn how to teach on it – manage the students, learn the features of the program, and adapt their teaching while considering the emotional well-being of the students, who are probably anxious and stressed, without overwhelming them,” he said.

The pandemic has caused pandemonium, he conceded, and educational content delivery will be slightly reduced. “But in terms of the skills and competencies that the B.C. Ministry wants our teachers to teach, that will be done.”

Six days into its online instruction, Klein said the challenge will be extending the momentum after the Passover break. “As we get deeper into this our students’ energy might wane, and we need to think about how we can keep everyone’s energy and positivity up, and how to continue to involve students in school life,” he said.

“We’re also considering how we’ll incorporate Yom ha-Shoah, Yom ha-Zikaron and Yom ha-Atzmaut meaningfully into our curriculum, because we don’t want to lose the ingredients and relationships that are critical to our school.”

But the prime responsibility for educators at KDHS, as with all the Jewish schools in Vancouver, is the emotional well-being of the kids, he emphasized. “This is an incredibly scary time for them, and we want them to stay positive, engaged, and to feel supported.”

Public and independent schools in British Columbia would have returned to classes on March 30 and superintendent Scott Robinson said that by the week of April 7 teachers would begin to offer most students “learning opportunities,” and that by mid-April such opportunities would be in place for all students. He asked for patience while educators “figure out the details,” and promised childcare for K-7 children of essential services workers including health care workers, emergency responders, utility workers, those supporting vulnerable populations, workers supporting key chain supply and teachers and childcare providers.