Creating stability for students during COVID-19

While new programs implemented by the health and education ministries attempt to create stability in schools during the ongoing pandemic, teachers have their doubts about if it will be enough.

 KICKING OFF the new academic year at Jerusalem’s Pola school, September 1 (photo credit: YOSSI ZAMIR/FLASH90)
KICKING OFF the new academic year at Jerusalem’s Pola school, September 1
(photo credit: YOSSI ZAMIR/FLASH90)

Israel’s educational system has undergone quite a few upheavals in the last 18 months since the outbreak of the pandemic. 

A variety of attempts were made along the way to get a handle on the spread of disease so that Israeli schoolchildren could continue their education – including learning in small groups, learning remotely on Zoom, holding hybrid classes with some children present and some joining from remote locations, reducing the number of subjects being taught, recording sessions so that they could be watched anytime, anywhere, and holding classes outdoors. 

Now, in a new Health Ministry program, pupils will undergo serological testing with the goal of identifying those with a high level of antibodies, meaning that they had at some point been infected with the virus without knowing it. These individuals would then receive a Green Pass, which would exempt them from having to isolate at home after coming into contact with those testing positive. This would mark a change from when school recently opened on September 1, in which children under the age of 12 were required to show negative results from an at-home COVID-19 test before being allowed to enter school grounds. 

The new program also requires that all teaching staff in schools and kindergartens comply with the Green Pass system, with students vaccinated on school grounds, subject to parental permission. In addition, in cities designated “red,” any class in middle and high schools in which fewer than 70% of students are vaccinated will have all lessons taught virtually. 

For all schools throughout the country, when one child tests positive, a “green class” model would be implemented. This means that all students found to be positive must enter isolation, and the rest of the class must do a PCR test. In addition, children in these classes will need to wear masks inside the school, and classes would be held in an open space or at least in a way so that reduces students’ proximity to each other. 

Yet there is uncertainty hovering over the new initiative as it is put in place. Disagreements between governmental officials and Education and Health ministry representatives, and frequent amendments to the initiative, are leading to great concern among teachers and school principals, who are finding it quite difficult to imagine what the upcoming school year will bring. 

“We are entering yet another year of school in the shadow of COVID-19,” explains Orna Weinberg, principal at Hagomeh, a lower school in Kfar Blum, “and our greatest challenge as school principals is first and foremost the resilience of our staff, since their well-being is necessary for the children’s safety and sense of security. 

“Children are acutely aware of the how their teachers are feeling, and keeping our pupils healthy will help their families remain resilient. A much larger number of families with children at our school are currently dealing with dire financial and mental health situations than in pre-COVID-19 days. We are working extremely hard to support all of them. There are over 550 students studying at Hagomeh, and we’ve developed a close bond with many of their parents.”

How do you define ‘resilience’?

“Resilience is a very broad concept,” continues Weinberg. “By and large, our aim is to maintain the mental well-being of every staff member, as well as every student. We are always checking to see that everyone is handling the changes that are coming our way at a dizzying pace, that they learn how to go with the flow and not get bogged down in their frustration, or heaven forbid begin to act in an antagonistic fashion. 

“At the very beginning of the outbreak, many heated discussions took place in the teachers’ lounge, and it was clear the teachers were having an extremely hard time dealing with the difficulties caused by the pandemic. By now, we have all learned how to take a deep breath and do what we have to do to make it possible to teach.”

What’s the plan for this month? “I let all my teachers know that the temporary class schedule is only for the first nine days of teaching in September, until we get through the chagim; the permanent schedule will only go into effect in October. We will use these few days in September to tackle the most important tasks, such as making sure all the teachers are feeling a sense of control over their classroom, that the students have had time to make friends and settle down, and to create a relaxed and pleasant dynamic in every classroom, and an open dialogue between students and teachers.

“Nowadays, I invest much more of my time dealing with the changes I’d like to implement at Hagomeh, using the knowledge we’ve gained in the last year-and-a-half. These details affect all our decisions regarding pedagogical and interpersonal issues, from how to structure the daily schedule and how to reach our goal of creating a personal relationship between teachers and each of their students. It’s important to know what your priorities are and then be smart about how you achieve your goals. We realize that the country’s health situation is not going to improve any time soon, so we might as well dig in and do what we can to make this school year as great as we can make it.”

 Getting excited for the new school year (credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90) Getting excited for the new school year (credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)

How is the first month of school going so far?

“Well, a few of our teachers are already isolating at home, and it’s really difficult, since last year we were given emergency funding to deal with our teacher shortage, but these funds are not being offered this year. We’ve also lost funding for a few teaching hours, so it’s hard to be optimistic, but I’m making a great effort to do the best with what we have. I’m always trying to create buffers so we can manage even when things get tough. All of our staff are working so hard and truly giving their all. But we all have our limits.”

Ohad Me’orer, a math and physical education teacher at the Gymnasia Realit High School as well as the Ha’academia Hatzi’eera in Rishon Lezion, believes classes should be held in person in the classroom, with as few virtual hours as possible. 

“Our greatest challenge in both formal and informal educational settings is distance learning,” he explains. “I’ve been teaching math for 23 years. I’ve learned how to read what’s going on with a student by looking them in the eye. I realized right away last year that my students were not handling learning on Zoom very well, and it was really difficult for me to connect with them through the screen. That’s why it’s so important that we all go back to frontal learning in the classroom, and pay close attention to students’ moods.”

Me’orer stresses that it’s also important to encourage students to make an effort to achieve better results. “The gap between the stronger and weaker students has grown since COVID-19 arrived on the scene,” Me’orer continues. “We teachers need to make an extra effort to bolster and nurture weaker and disadvantaged students. Otherwise, they’ll just keep falling more and more behind their fellow classmates, and that can lead to a lack of self-confidence.”The Dov Hoz School (Hatichon Hahevrati) in Tel Aviv opened last year, “even though we were in midst of the pandemic,” says Ohad Lahav, coprincipal of the high school. “We limit class size to 25, which made it easier to create capsules of students according to Education Ministry requirements.”

What do you think will be the school’s greatest challenges during the upcoming academic year?

“The greatest challenge we are facing is finding a way to enable our young students to spend time together in a safe way,” notes Lahav. “That was the factor most missing last year. Teens come to school for the social interaction, to meet up with friends and to be taught by their teachers who are looking out for their best interests. We need to find more creative solutions to enable them to have more frontal learning hours and to be able to spend time with their fellow classmates. This year, in place of final exams, students’ will be required to complete a group project, which is aimed at piquing students’ curiosity and spark a desire to learn.

“Even if one or more of the students in the group end up having to isolate for a period of time, they can continue working on the project with their group, joining the others by phone or video. This way, they remain involved in their schoolwork and also stay connected to their peers. For teens, being isolated can be catastrophic to their mental well-being. This epidemic has forced us all to think out of the box a little more.”

“We have all had to learn to adapt ourselves to techno-pedagogy,” says Yossi Sperber, principal of the Ankori High School in Petah Tikva. “That is, as educators, we need to learn how to communicate and reach our students using digital media. This method is based on Social Emotional Learning (SEL), in which we pay extra attention to our students’ emotional experience. Our goal for the upcoming year is to take charge of all this chaos and create a stable world within it. Schools need to normalize their students’ learning experience and create a sense of community.”

What steps are you taking to help your students have a successful learning experience this year?

“As teachers, we are finding that we need to adapt ourselves to our students’ world,” continues Sperber. “Also, when we’re formulating our lesson plan, we need to keep in mind that the lesson might end up being given on Zoom instead of inside a classroom, or perhaps outdoors in the park. Somehow, among all this chaos, we need to create a feeling of calm and togetherness, to make sure every student feels they are an integral part of the class, regardless of where they are physically sitting at that moment.” 

One of the more creative ways Sperber has found to achieve this is by making his own TikTok videos. “That way, I know every single one of my students will be paying full attention.”

Tomer Baliti, principal of the Jerusalem Arts High School, claims the greatest hardship last year for his students was that they weren’t given enough notice and time to prepare before each lockdown or change in Health Ministry directives. “The biggest lesson we learned from this past school year, is that we must not ever fully give up frontal teaching. 

“To achieve this goal, we need the help of all our students’ families. Everything else we can deal with as the need arises.” 

Translated by Hannah Hochner.