By Sonia Kozlovsky
This year is one of uncertainty affecting all aspects of life. School is no exception. In my role as librarian at Krieger Schechter Day School for the past 36 years, I have seen the school adapt to many new realities, none of which have been as dramatic as the response to the current pandemic. Instead of welcoming classes to the comfortable space in front of Fireball, our dragon mascot, I see desks. When I look for books, I see white boards instead of the bustle of students browsing for their latest find. This was shocking, but necessary.
I take pride in being part of a team that is able to integrate new teaching methods and protocols to keep our community safe and ensure continued delivery of our strong academic program. The concept of “it takes a village,” so often quoted by Wendy Gelber, our Lower School head, is evident and includes the synagogue staff, KSDS board, a committee of health professionals, school nurses, parents, students, faculty and staff. This sense of community is what defines Schechter.
Coming into the building a few times during the summer brought me to tears as I faced a totally empty parking lot, vacant halls and few, if any, people on a campus usually abuzz with activity. Despite the challenges returning to the physical building would bring, it is so joyful to see our children enter the building eager to begin each new day in school. KSDS has risen to the occasion by creating a safe environment for students to continue quality learning, and fulfill its mission to teach “students to become confident, successful, and valued members of society as committed and knowledgeable Jews.” With many months of collaborative work in consultation with health professionals, and tons of feedback from faculty, staff, parents and students, the school administration opted for a hybrid model whereby the week would be divided between in-person and distance learning and an option for total remote learning.
Everything has changed, yet the underlying principles of running a school remain the same.
The challenges have been enormous, and response is continually evolving. Positive and creative thinking have transformed teaching and learning. New teaching methods have been adopted and adjustments made as necessary. The team is continually updating policies based on the current issues and state and local response to the virus.
Rabbi Moshe Schwartz, head of school, emphasizes that health and safety were the top priorities in opening the school this year. Paw prints for distancing, ubiquitous hand sanitizer and masks are the hallmarks of school this year. Physical changes abound — large spaces have been converted into classrooms, where each group or kvutzah composed of individual classes learns together and stays together. Frequent breaks are built into a new schedule. Lunch, recess and meetings take place outside. Even in the winter months, arrangements will be made to eat in ventilated tents. An ethical covenant, signed by every family in the school, informs the entire community of expectations and safe practices, and school nurses lead the effort to apply the guidelines with vigilance. Each day, students and faculty are greeted by a new sign at our school entrance that reads in Hebrew and English, “Love Your Neighbor as Yourself” (Leviticus 19:18), a reminder that we are responsible for one another. This evokes an emotional response from me each time I enter.
“The delivery has changed, but not the core of who we are as a school,” states Rabbi Moshe. Thanks to the adaptability and creativity of the faculty, quality learning is taking place in all areas. The library, which once bustled with classes, browsers and volunteers, is now a classroom, and I and the other specialists bring our show on the road, instead of having the students come to the library, science room or art room.
I am in awe of our teachers. The faculty has invested countless hours in professional development and has implemented numerous strategies for teaching with technology, which engages students whether learning in school or at home. Technology has been upgraded; iPads and laptops are constant companions, and students at all levels can be observed learning diligently. At the same time, teachers create a balance using technology and more traditional teaching methods. The administration and staff work tirelessly and efficiently to help teachers navigate the challenges we face.
Adjusting to new circumstances requires a huge learning curve. “Flexibility is our middle name,” was the constant refrain of Faye Pollack, our former Lower School head. This continues to be the case as the school has transitioned to hybrid learning. Within one class, there may be students working in person with one teacher and other groups working with another teacher on Zoom. Socially distant “mask breaks” outside are scheduled throughout the day. Robyn Blum, our Middle School head, comments that she is “amazed by everyone’s adaptability, engaging in high-quality learning and interpersonal interactions in a completely new educational paradigm. We have found enormous successes at all steps of our journey together.”
It is wonderful to see so many students engaged and happy to be learning. Our guidance department inspires confidence and is very attuned to the social-emotional needs of the students and faculty alike. Professionals Dr. Sharon Buck and Kristen Wavle acknowledge the challenges, the need to adjust expectations and the variety of responses to the stress of living during the time of COVID-19. They have developed a curriculum that allows for students to articulate concerns and validate feelings, and each is available to meet with individual students and teachers.
KSDS doesn’t skip a beat. Communication is key and positivity has a ripple effect. The school administration recognizes the tremendous sacrifices parents and faculty are making and the impact of working together to adhere to the guidelines. Students have written about the positive aspects of more breaks, eating outside and creative teaching. Rabbi Jeremy Fierstein, a parent and a co-president of the Parent Association, expresses his deep appreciation to school for prioritizing the safety of the community and to the teachers and staff who support the students’ emotional and academic needs.
I have confidence that we will keep soaring to new heights by being resilient and adapting to the circumstances we face.
Sonia Kozlovsky is the librarian at Krieger Schechter Day School. This is part of a series on topics in education facilitated by The Louise D. and Morton J. Macks Center for Jewish Education, an agency of The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore, with the partnership of local schools and educators. CJE promotes and facilitates lifelong learning that nurtures Jewish identity and strengthens Jewish community.