The “new normal” that’s been with us since the middle of March, with its unprecedented “shelter in place” quarantine, has shuttered our schools, turning bedrooms into virtual classrooms and parents into learning facilitators.
In the New York tri-state area, where the lion’s share of coronavirus cases have been diagnosed, this lockdown has been extended until at least the end of this school year. And then, even if our day schools are permitted to reopen in September, future random outbreaks — especially in major metropolitan areas — may again land us in another shutdown. Being prepared for disruption is critical.
Thankfully, for many of the Jewish day schools across America, the transition from educating our children in physical classrooms to virtual ones has been seamless due to a vital academic institution in Israel.
In the six years since the Lookstein Virtual Jewish Academy was established at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat-Gan, it has been pioneering programs to educate students and teachers across the globe with unique e-learning. Until now, it has been especially beneficial to families living remotely from major Jewish areas who still want their children to receive a Jewish educational foundation.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Lookstein Virtual Academy has been working daily with approximately 50 yeshivot and day schools around the United States, including the Manhattan Day School on the Upper West Side, to complete the academic year virtually. As well, they provide online Jewish learning to over 2,500 students worldwide.
Lookstein Academy has been in contact with administrators from all of their partner schools and synagogues to dialogue with them about the current situation, and to brainstorm about opportunities to support their online classrooms moving forward.
The schools that have appointed Lookstein are finding that it provides a semblance of stability in this turbulent time. Almost overnight, the Lookstein Academy has been transformed into a major player in teacher preparation.
“Our team is setting up training sessions as well as other ways to continue to support teachers and administrators,” says Naomi Schrager, the academy’s director of education. “We are putting out short videos with tips and tools to use in online classrooms, and we are making ourselves available for consultations with schools and teachers.”
Just after the lockdown began, Lookstein Virtual Academy offered a free session for educators about the basics of online teaching and engaging students in the virtual classroom. The session drew over a hundred teachers from around the world, most of whom were not previously in the Lookstein network.
“It was all about engaging students virtually and using tools online,” says Schrager. “We have been sending out content for teachers to use in their virtual classrooms both for the Jewish holidays and everyday material.”
The program has had a profound impact on how so many teachers and schools have been able to make the transition to a daily online curriculum in a time of crisis. The parents of day-school students have maintained a high expectation for the continuance of a quality Jewish education, even with these dramatically different circumstances. And with the guidance of the Lookstein Academy, they have been able to deliver impressively.
“Lookstein Virtual is the one and only thing in my children’s lives that has been consistent during this crisis,” says Dara Horn, a mom from New Jersey.
“My kids have already been ‘distance learning’ with these imaginatively designed materials and these caring professional educators for years, and during the pandemic my kids’ terrific courses have simply continued as usual. In this crazy time, I only wish that the rest of their education was more like Lookstein.”
While it has taken Lookstein nearly a decade to build up its current following, it has recently expanded its capacity to welcome another 1,000 students just after Passover ended, as schools across America sought new solutions to the lockdown.
“History teaches us that, over the centuries, Jewish education has thrived in unlikely scenarios,” says Chana German, executive director of the Lookstein Center.
“It is flourishing in this unexpected period as well. We are blown away by the boundless dedication of our heroic teachers and moved to see the raw need of our children to learn and grow Jewishly, despite the pandemic around them. We can keep this momentum going if we plan effectively for the future, a future that is brimming with promise.”
From Bar-Ilan University