Local | Mind, Body & Spirit

Tucson Hebrew Academy makes fast switch to online learning

A fourth-grade student at Tucson Hebrew Academy displays a Lego® tower he created after the school switched to remote learning in mid-March. The structure, which demonstrates engineering principles, can hold a ball for longer than two minutes. (Courtesy Stephanie Buchler/Tucson Hebrew Academy)

Gov. Doug Ducey announced the closure of Arizona schools on Sunday, March 15  to mitigate the spread of coronavirus. On March 16, Tucson Hebrew Academy was ready with online learning, says Head of School Laurence Kutler, Ph.D.

”We were prepared two weeks before it happened,” Kutler says, explaining that THA students already used technology such as Google Classroom and Zoom meetings.

On March 15, parents of students who did not have a computer available at home came to THA to pick up Chromebooks that had been used in classrooms. Kutler was concerned there might be students without Wi-Fi access, but that didn’t prove to be an issue. Parents of lower school students also picked up workbooks so kids could follow along with teachers’ online lessons. The upper school already used online textbooks.

“I have to commend our staff and our parents for seamlessly going into this scenario, which was full of possible potholes,” Kutler says, noting that parents with full-time jobs faced the challenge of suddenly working from home and supervising their kids’ online learning. “Doing multiple jobs in a social and emotional environment like a pandemic, it’s a lot of pressure.”

Jeff Jacobson, a THA board member who has a fourth-grade daughter, Shoshana, and a son, Sam, in seventh grade, says “THA stepped up to the plate enormously quickly.”

“On the morning of March 16, they were on their laptops, working away, full day of school. It was a seamless transition,” he says, adding that there was some adjustment at the beginning, making sure kids understood where to submit their assignments. “The communication from [Principal] Gabby Erbst and her team, from Shoshana’s teachers, from Sam’s teachers, has been fantastic.”

Jennifer Lehrfeld, THA’s STEM coordinator and science department head, says the transition “has been a learning process for sure, with a lot of trials and thankfully not too much error.”

THA started out keeping kids on their normal class schedules, requiring students to sign in to Zoom classes each period, she says. “There were obviously many issues with that. Some students had technology issues and it was difficult to hear or see what was going on in the class. Many students have challenges at home due to brothers and sisters, working parents, slow internet connections, stress, etc.”

After the first week, teachers met to discuss changes.

“We felt that the rigid structure was too much for many kids and tying them to their screens from 8 in the morning to 3:30 just was not reasonable. We changed to a more flexible schedule. The new schedule asks students to check in with teachers every day but they can do so on their own time unless a teacher has a scheduled meeting.

“For me, checking in means that students send me a private message via Google Chat to tell me what they are working on,” Lehrfeld says. She describes an array of tech tools her students are using: work-at-your-own-pace modules made up of online videos with digital assessments; online tutorials and simulations; slide shows she creates with fill-in-the-blank notes; PDF worksheets kids color and fill in via the school’s subscription to Kami, a student PDF editor; student-led home labs; and Google Forms digital quizzes and assignments.

As a science teacher, Lehrfeld says her biggest challenge with remote learning is hands-on experiments. For the most part, she has filled in with simulations students watch online.

“I can’t have them experimenting on their own at home because their supplies are limited and I can’t ask parents to head to the store in these trying times,” she says. “My physics class is doing an energy unit though, so they had to design a toy that used potential and kinetic energy, then use that toy to do an experiment and collect data about the relationship. I’m just getting those assignments in now and kids have made everything from paper roller coasters to spoon slingshots. I think they are still having fun.”

A scoreboard on the game-based learning platform Kahoot shows Tucson Hebrew Academy eighth-grader Anisa Rutherford tied for first place on a history quiz. [Courtesy Stephanie Buchler/Tucson Hebrew Academy)
Anisa Rutherford, an eighth-grade student, says the adjustment to remote learning was a little difficult at first, “but I’m used to it now. I just make sure that I stay organized and write down everything that I need to do.”

Her teachers take different approaches. In history, for example, the students get an assignment due at the end of the week, while in other subjects she’ll have one or two days to work on projects. At least once a week each class has a Zoom discussion for no longer than 15 or 20 minutes, she says.

Although Anisa and her friends miss being together at school, they have been talking using FaceTime or chatting via text. “We’re making sure that we’re staying in touch,” she says.

“The transition for [the kids] has been easier than for us,” says Jacobson. He is a lawyer with his own practice, while his wife, Rachel, a pharmacist at Bashas’, is an essential worker who cannot work remotely. It is a challenge, he says, just keeping their business lives afloat, but he’s grateful for how well THA has managed the school transition.

“We’re very sensitive to the needs of the kids and the parents,” says Kutler. Through Jewish Family & Children’s Services, THA employs a counselor, Felicia Cohen, “who has been on top of this and done some interventions where necessary.”

Cohen says she organized a parent Zoom group meeting as a source of support, particularly for those with younger kids, who need more assistance with online learning.

One familiar challenge parents face, she says, is managing school time versus video game time. But, she hasn’t heard much about kids voicing fears about the coronavirus. “We did send out information on helping children cope with COVID-19,” with recommendations for different age groups.

A parent herself, with two kids in high school and one in middle school, she advises parents to be flexible and perhaps relax some of the rules they had pre-pandemic.

“I think we need to communicate more openly with our children. Check in with them frequently, ‘How are you doing, how are you feeling, is there anything that’s upsetting you,” she advises, noting that children often need prompting to talk about their emotions.

It is important to observe kids’ behaviors, and to make sure they are getting enough sleep, eating normally, getting exercise, and getting some sunshine, Cohen says.

She suggests that parents “try to stay calm, listen to your children, and try to offer reassurance,” adding “I am available for Zoom calls or telephone support. Everybody has my email.”

Stephanie Buchler, the mother of Anisa, teaches fourth grade in THA’s lower school. “It’s was astonishing how well the fourth-graders adapted,” she says, but notes that these students are ready to join THA’s  upper school as fifth-graders next year. Just as they did when school was meeting at the River Road campus, she says, some students need more one-on-one instruction, but that has been easy to schedule with the Google Classroom system.

Buchler’s students also have a Google chat group they use to stay in touch. And parents have been good about sending her photos of kids with their science experiments.

Adina Karp is a first-grade homeroom teacher. She also provides math enrichment for small groups of third-graders and teaches fifth- and sixth-grade math. With her first-graders now, she says, she is providing an optional, informal hang out time daily. One day last week, she says, “I had all of them showing me their stuffed animals and artwork they created over the past few weeks.”

Both educators and students have learned to be more flexible as they adjust to remote learning, Karp says. “I think everyone has really come together as a community.”

For her third-graders, she set long division problems for the kids to solve over a week or so, to be followed by a bingo game using the answers.

A student Karp is working with one-on-one is creating her own board game using concepts she has learned in the past year, such as decimals, fractions, and conversions.

Overall, students have adapted well, Karp says. “Older kids have learned to advocate for themselves more. It’s a valuable skill.”  She also has seen that students have a new appreciation for being able to attend school in person. They miss both academic and social aspects of traditional schooling, she says.

Lehrfeld, who also is THA’s student council advisor, helped with plans for a spirit week with celebrations of Earth Day and Israel Independence Day, as well as a digital yearbook signing party at the end of the year. “We’re trying to keep as many fun traditions as possible,” she says.

For eighth-graders, the stay-at-home rules have forced postponement of the long-awaited year-end trip to Israel. Anisa spoke matter-of-factly about options she heard are being discussed, such as joining with next year’s class in May 2021 or having the trip during 2021 spring break.

Kutler hopes it can be sooner. THA needs to touch base with its Israeli partners, he says, but one possibility might be a trip for this year’s eighth-graders in late fall. Another idea would be a winter break trip combining this year’s class with next year’s eighth-graders, if there is a mutual vacation time, although he notes the weather in parts of Israel is not ideal in December. Any plans, of course, are contingent upon the lifting of travel restrictions and social isolation.

As an educator for more than 35 years, Kutler predicts the remote work and school experiences the pandemic created will alter society forever. “The online learning that we’re doing now isn’t going to disappear,” he says. “How school looks is going to be different than the way it was in the past, and we as administrators in THA and in other schools are going to have to adapt to new scenarios.”