Choosing a school for your child is often fraught with agonizing decisions and a sea of choices that are hard to navigate. In the pandemic, the layers of that choice are all the more complex. Each family has multiple options and creative solutions abound.
Below is a sampling of three Baltimore families and the choices that are right for them. As a community, we can celebrate our diverse options and applaud the families- all of whom are raising the future leaders of our Jewish community.
Lila, 6 1/2, is attending virtual school through a Baltimore County public school. We hired a retired teacher to facilitate virtual learning and create an in-person experience for her and her pod. We “podded” with two other little girls who are in her class; her cousin and one of her close friends!
Brooklyn, 4, is staying home. We rotate houses with three other children around the same age. We purchased activity and subscription boxes so that they can create something together and socialize.
For Jewish learning, my kids go to “Zayda School.” My father is a professor/teacher and he and my mom take the girls for four hours, twice a week. They learn letters and sounds and of course, now are focusing on the fall holidays.
For example, they made yarn apples and stained-glass pomegranates for Rosh HaShana. For Yom Kippur, we have a family tradition of going to the cemetery, so the girls painted their own special rocks to leave on the gravestone.
My favorite service of the year is Neilah at the end of Yom Kippur, and our tradition is to go up to the Ark at Chizuk Amuno and have a special family prayer. Of course, we could not do that this year, so my girls made a replica of an ark from a cardboard box at Zayda School. We all wrote our special prayers/notes and put them inside and then listened to shofar on YouTube before we broke the fast. The girls are always singing songs in Hebrew on the way home from my parents’ home.
Silver linings? Of course, it is tough, and I truly believe that kids generally should be attending school, but it was an easy choice for us. We weighed the exposure that would take place with more full-time in-person schooling versus spending time with grandparents, and family was the priority. This is a really hard time for a lot of people, I feel stressed and overwhelmed at times, but I am grateful that my kids have such close relationships with my parents and father-in-law and that they are learning. I am definitely not a teacher and I am not trying to be – it is good to have the kids engaged and happy.
Our daughter, Ellie is 5 years old and she is in-person learning five days a week in a private school kindergarten. Our son Benjamin is 3, and we have a nanny at home, so he is staying home and using different subscription programs and kits to enrich his day. As a result, we “hodgepodged” together a preschool curriculum.
For example, he has daily circle time and is learning seasons and days of the week… It is adorable, every day he puts on his backpack as he heads down to the basement where we set up a special dedicated space and he says “Mommy, I am going to school- I will see you later!”.
We structured the learning options the way we did because we wanted to give Ellie, our kindergartner, every opportunity to learn in person with her peers. Our goal is to keep everyone healthy and keep her in school!
For the Jewish learning part, we have taken advantage of the CJE Tot Shabbat at Meadowood Park and have accessed different holiday programs and projects through the community connectors. For example, the Towson connector assembled a bag filled with Rosh HaShana goodies and there was a mobile sukkah program we participated in. We are also using content from the CJE website to make sure that both kids have continuity. Up until now, they were both enrolled in Jewish preschool and we didn’t want this unusual year to interrupt their Jewish experience.
Silver linings? Since my husband Jon and I are both working from home, having daily lunch with our preschooler has definitely been a silver lining. Even at other times, when Benjamin is proud of something he has done, such as an art project, he can run and show it to us. There are so many more touch points during the day.
We also have the opportunity to be on the frontlines watching as our kids make tremendous progress. For example, Benjamin started quarantine with remote speech therapy and he was barely talking- now we see that he is communicating, and his speech is exactly where it should be. It is very exciting!
For Ellie, she comes home from kindergarten at 3:30 every day and can tell us about her day. In the past, with us both working out of the home, it was late in the day- now her memory is fresh. We see a different person now- she was always a happy kid, but being able to make new friends and share her enthusiasm, we get to see a whole different level of joy.
Sid, 8, and Ivy, 4, are both learning in-person at Beth Tfiloh Community Day School (BT). This is Sid’s fourth year at BT and Ivy’s third year, and we were excited to send them back. We feel really grateful that BT did everything they possibly could so my children could learn in-person. And, while I know that there might be periods where they will have to learn virtually, I know that it will be handled carefully and well.
There were two different preschool options available: the in-person model which we chose for Ivy or kesher where the students are home and included in the class community. In lower school, Sid had a choice of IRL (“In Real Life”), Virtual Academy (a virtual pod with his own teacher) or zooming in to class. We chose IRL and have not yet had to use the zoom option, but I anticipate that we might during the year.
We were torn because Sid did really well learning virtually. Even though he thrived in his virtual learning experience, I thought he would be happy to have friends and have more in person- and anticipate that at some point they will have to be virtual, so maybe he will get the best of both worlds. One class had to pivot to virtual for three days out of an abundance of caution, and I anticipate that this will happen from time to time.
We never anticipated enrolling our children in Jewish day school, but from the first tour of the school, we were sold. It gave me butterflies in my stomach seeing how much joy and happiness the kids were having. Watching them singing the blessings after the meal in the dining room reminded me of a camp cafeteria.
Having Judaism integrated into their curriculum has been a silver lining and we enjoy watching our children take their Jewish education as seriously as they take the other subjects. I remarked to Sid the other day that I studied for so long in Hebrew school to learn the Haftorah blessings for my Bat Mitzvah and he will be able to do it “in his sleep” when it is time for his Bar Mitzvah!
Other silver linings? Dr. Schorr and her team thought of every detail to safely reopen school. The amount of planning and organization is incredible and it gave me the insight that we are very fortunate that our children are being cared for by people who care so much!
For example, in carpool line, every single staff person was outside making sure it all worked and that the kids were smiling. It was done in a way that was safe and prioritized the kids’ mental health. It was palpable that every teacher is proud to be part of a nuanced and complicated operation that ensures the learning and health of our children.
Originally, when we were trying to make the decision about which school option for this year, it felt like an impossible situation with no good solution. Now, I see that all of my friends feel at peace with their decisions. My kids are totally thriving- my 4 year old has asked to sleep at school she loves it so much- in the beginning it was really rough for her to be home and bored with no friends, an older brother who needed help accessing school and me trying to juggle home and work – so I am just praying that it can stay this away.
Families have choices. Schools and educators, parents and grandparents are all working to ensure the success of the next generation of learners. While this Fall is like no other, it is clear that our unusual experiences will make us stronger as a community.
Author and brave Jewish mother, Sherri Mandell wrote: “Resilience isn’t bouncing back. It’s leaping forward.” As families are leaping forward into a new, flexible and challenging reality, their children are learning and growing. May we all know the blessings of good health, satisfaction from the choices we make and an abundance of learning!
For support and resources about Jewish education, be in touch with staff at The Center for Jewish Education, an agency of The Associated, or check out their website for more information.
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