“We can all sing b’yachad [together],” goes the backtrack, as the Youtube video sweeps from family to family waving hands at the web camera.
The SAR Academy in New York was the first American Jewish school to close because of coronavirus more than two weeks ago. But it moved quickly to adapt by setting up a virtual learning programme. And as its digital havdalah service last Saturday night showed, uniting families in cyber if not physical space, Jewish life goes on.
Although most Jewish schools in the UK remained open at the start of the week, closure was “an inevitability”, said Rabbi David Meyer, executive director of Pajes, the Jewish Leadership Council’s education division.
So Pajes did not wait for the government to order school gates to be shut. Preparations were under way this week to equip schools to deliver distance learning when the need arose and help parents keep their children occupied if they had to be confined at home.
Nic Abery, a schools adviser for Pajes, has been looking at the SAR experience as a model. “They do have the capacity and technology to do it,” she said. “All the kids have devices and use online platforms for homework. What they have done is to create a schedule.”
Pajes has focused its efforts on supporting heads and governors as they cope with rapidly changing circumstances, providing training for teachers in offering education online and looking at what it means to be a virtual school.
“We’re trying to put together some webinars to support staff and heads during this time because they are under enormous strain,” Rabbi Meyer said.
It has been fortunate in being able to draw on the expertise of Jewish Interactive, the London-based digital Jewish education developer to run teacher training.
“We are preparing for lockdown in a considered way,” said Ji’s chief executive Chana Kanzen.
Ji, whose advocacy of technology-enhanced Jewish studies had reached 50 countries even before the virus crisis, was being “inundated” with requests for help, she said. One teacher from Georgia had called for advice because he found American-accented English of the online programmes the school was using hard to understand.
“We do a lot of training remotely because we are training schools all over the world,” she said.
“We’ve got online platforms and resources which are designed for asynchronous learning — kids can learn using platforms and tools on their own.”
It has also set up a home learning page and will provide daily online packages for families.
“A lot of schools have online systems — but they need to ensure that they can deliver education and that kids log in,” she said.
So they will be addressing issues such as how to keep children motivated.
“We are also teaching schools how to utilise systems that might not have been designed for education in an effective, educational way,” Mrs Kanzen said.
Zoom, which enables video-conferencing, is one example. “In situations of isolation, we are finding that online media platforms where kids can talk to teachers is a vital lifeline. The longer isolation continues, the more important it is to have face to face interaction.”
But while the idea is to help provide children with a structured education programme at home, that does not mean they should be stuck behind a screen all day from 8.30 to 4.
“Everybody is recommended to do some sort of physical activity and to take time away from a screen,” Ms Abery said.
“There are practical exercises they can do outside — like a survey of birds in the garden.”
“We are also aware that there are kids who may not have access to a device so we are trying to provide resources that people can take home.”
A baking session, for example, can involve practical science and maths.
Apart from educational content, guidance is being given on areas such as safeguarding — for instance with video links. Parents are advised to have children work in a “semi-public room such as a kitchen or dining room — and to have the screen facing the wall rather than into a room,” Ms Abery says.
While children are now set for a premature and extended Pesach holiday, schools have been trying to get ready as best they can. And without the foresight of the donors who enabled Ji to expand over the past couple of years, it would not have been in the position it now is to help.