NY Jewish schools turn to virtual learning during coronavirus closures

Local parent: Antisemites are already blaming the Jews for the local outbreak

One of SAR's Zoom sessions Thursday morning included guitar music (photo credit: JTA/SAR ACADEMY)
One of SAR's Zoom sessions Thursday morning included guitar music
(photo credit: JTA/SAR ACADEMY)
Laura Shaw Frank was informed last week that her son, Davi, a senior at Salanter Akiba Riverdale High School, better known by the acronym SAR, would have to enter quarantine. Two students at his school had been diagnosed with coronavirus at the time.
She said her son barely knows the ninth graders who have come down with COVID-19, but that SAR High School and SAR Academy – the connected elementary and middle school – were taking precautions advised by the state to help stop the spread of the novel virus.
As of Saturday, there have been 16 confirmed cases of coronavirus in New York County, 19 in Westchester, one in Nassau County and two in Bergen County, New Jersey – most affected people, Frank said, are Jewish. These people include many students and parents from the SAR schools, which are in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx. As such, SAR and two other day schools – Frisch School in New Jersey and Westchester Day School – shuttered their doors until at least March 11.
Franks’ synagogue, which was undergoing renovations and was meeting at SAR Academy. Nonetheless, they still met there on Shabbat.
Unexpectedly, classes have continued.
Within 24 hours, the school set up a series of Zoom online classrooms and a viable schedule to ensure that learning could commence, said Frank, who, until recently taking a job as associate director of the American Jewish Committee’s Contemporary Jewish Life department, was employed by SAR.
“They have a Zoom classroom for every teacher and the director of technology did training and continues to send out full memos to ensure that everyone knows how to run them,” Frank said.
Teacher trainings included how to share their screens, having the students raise their hands virtually or enter a group chat, as well as how to break into smaller groups within the conference – and more.
“The online learning has been intense,” Avi Bloom, director of technology for SAR, told JTA. “It’s been kind of an insane few days of getting it up and running, and really inspiring. There is a tremendous amount of learning happening, of connecting happening.”
At the end of the day, teachers fill out forms sharing their successes and challenges.
SAR Academy, the lower school, is also using videoconferencing for some classes. Rami Lapin, 11, did Mad Libs with his English class this week and yoga with classmates during a virtual physical education class. The students are also given activities to do themselves at home.
“It was pretty weird with so many other people doing it,” Rami, a fifth grader, said about the yoga class. “So many other people can see you. It’s like, ‘Hmmm, isn’t there a way you could change this?’”
But it is even more than book learning. The high school arranged a virtual “mishmar,” Frank said – Beit Midrash learning. One of the faculty members recently lost his mother and more than 100 students participated in a virtual shiva call. Moreover, a middle schooler had his bar mitzvah and all the classmates were there with him, in his home, via Zoom.
“SAR is a very strong community,” Rabbi Tully Harcsztark, the school’s principal and a teacher of ninth-grade Talmud, told JTA. “People really connect with each other and support each other in deep ways. That’s been the feeling here.”
Frank said she has been impressed by how closely the principals of the area’s day schools have been communicating and supporting each other. She also noted that there has been a “complete lack of hysteria being emitted and rather a great deal of calm and a great deal of good humor. I think that has gone a long way to keep the kids and families calm.
“I think we do run the risk of petering into insanity,” she said.
At the same time, Frank admitted that she does worry that this is only going to get worse before it gets better. She said she thinks that older people are at risk for becoming lonely since they don’t use technology the way that students do, and that she is concerned that the kosher restaurants and markets, many of whose employees rely on tips from customers who are no longer eating out to survive, will begin to shutter.
Moreover, she is already seeing antisemitism creep onto social media, blaming the Jews for the outbreak in New York.
“Antisemites are always looking for reasons to blame the Jews,” Frank said. “It is inevitable that this will turn on the Jews.”
She said she hopes that NYC legislators will engage in a public information campaign, that public officials will speak out against antisemitic sentiments and pull in the Jewish community for help.
“I think for the most part they remain a lunatic fringe, she said, “but while we are fighting the coronavirus, we do have to work on preventing those [other] kinds of viruses from taking root in the mainstream community.”
JTA contributed to this report.