Family & Education

How the pandemic has affected our children

New report highlights the impact of the Covid-19 on the Jewish education of teenagers


Portrait of a happy girl with a group of students at the school wearing facemasks during the COVID-19 pandemic - education concepts

More than two-thirds of children at Jewish schools feel their education has been set back to some degree by the pandemic according to a study of its impact on Jewish teenagers in the UK.

The pandemic is “not over” and the community may have to deal with “at least a further year of chaos” as it wrestles with the fall-out from Covid 19, the Jewish Lives Interrupted report warns.

It documents reaction to the challenges of home schooling under three lockdowns, to not seeing other members of family particularly grandparents, and to missing out on formative Jewish experiences.

“Experiencing a greatly modified bar- or batmitzvah, not being able to travel to Israel with one’s peers or with a Jewish youth movement, missing out on a summer as a madrich at camp, not being able to visit Holocaust sites in Poland with one’s school — “missing out” in such ways may have a damaging effect on the way these young people develop as active Jews,” it states.

Jewish schools will have an important role to play in meeting mental health challenges that have arisen. The pandemic has “exacerbated” the tendency of girls to feel more anxiety than boys.

But although some children felt their lives were “turned upside down”, most took a balanced view of their experiences. “The overall impression of composure is a reason for optimism,” the report concludes.

While schools strove to provide remote lessons, it was clear there was “no substitute” for face-to-face learning. “The relationships developed between students and teacher, the opportunities for peer-to-peer support, and the social interaction young people experience are hard to replicate.”

Some children found home learning conducive, like the sixthformer who reported, “You’re in a nice comfy, relaxed chair and you’re in your bedroom, somehow that makes it easier so you can take in information because you’re more relaxed and therefore you feel like you’re ready to learn.”

But others experienced more difficulty in grappling with virtual teaching. “I didn’t really have that ‘oh, this is school, I’m working’ kind of mindset. So, I allowed myself to lose my good habits, like waking up early,” said one student.

“It’s harder to engage with the teacher as well as you would do in a class, if you’re on screen,” said another.

Around half said they enjoyed lessons on Zoom or other technologies.

Secular subjects were twice to three times as likely to be “fun” or “interesting” as Jewish studies — “ a gap that might exist in normal times,” the report adds.

The report, by Helena Miller, co-head of teacher training at the London School of Jewish Studies, and Alex Pomson, of the international Rosov Consulting, analysed data from eight Jewish secondary schools. They collected 1,376 responses to a survey of years 9, 12 and 13, along with the views of 117 students in focus groups.

Asked what they felt they had missed as a result of the pandemic restrictions, 70 per cent said travel abroad; 69 per cent, seeing school friends; 66 per cent, seeing relatives; and 46 per cent, classes at school. Not going to shul was less of a wrench — 22 per cent missed it.

And while being cocooned at home with parents and siblings did produce its tensions, most were positive about their family relationships during lockdown. “We definitely got a lot closer… like we started doing family movie nights, which we hadn’t done before,” said one pupil.

But the restrictive environment could be taxing. “Anyone who is sharing a bedroom like that with siblings and half younger brothers, oh my gosh, it’s the most frustrating thing, younger siblings shouting in the corridors everywhere, you can’t get any work done,” said one year 12. “ It’s a death sentence, honestly.”

Apart from disrupted school, teenagers have lost out on informal Jewish education activities.

While there was “a deep feeling of loss” over the Israel tours cancelled for two summers in a row, those that might have gone on them felt “this particular ship has sailed”.

One year-12 said, “I feel like for a lot of us it wouldn’t feel right to be on an Israel trip like that; we’re a lot more mature now. I don’t think we want to be led in the same way. We were already upset when it got cancelled but I don’t think I would opt to go on an Israel tour this summer of year 12 or year 13. I’d rather do other stuff.”

The longer-term implications of this “dampening of enthusiasm are potentially serious,” the report notes. Since such activities provide leaders for future years, “a failure to feed the leadership pool for two consecutive years will inevitably affect both the quality and quantity of community youth activities going forward”.

The cohorts have also “forgone one of the most important opportunities to engage seriously with questions about the place of Israel in their lives”.

While some experienced a deep sense of loss about not having the kind of bar and barmitzvah they might have imagined or being denied the chance to go the simchah of friends, for some a small event worked well. “We had 30 people. And I find that it was much nicer, because normally when you would have a huge barmitzvah, you wouldn’t know anyone there,” reflected one year-9.

While some were able to link up with family for Zoom Sedarim, others felt their festival celebration diminished. “It felt like I was very disconnected, especially not just from my family, but from kind of my religion,” said one year-12.

The experiences of the past year and a half have left questions. “Families have seen that they don’t need shuls for life cycle events,” the report says. “Whilst the use of Zoom has been a huge advantage for some, the implications for the community of this disruption are huge: how do shuls attract families back?”

The study, funded by the Pears Foundation and Wohl Legacy, is just a first step. A group of 75 educators is due to meet at LSJS next week to discuss what it means for Jewish life over the next year and beyond.






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