Teaching in a Pandemic Universe

Teaching in a Pandemic Universe

By Chaye Kohl

Teachers are urged to be lifelong learners. My career, infused with professional development, a few degree programs, and some independent study, has modeled that practice for my students. Studying made me a better teacher and helped me understand the process my students live every day. New lessons were thrust upon educators in March 2020; we pivoted from in-person teaching to virtual classrooms in a matter of days.

Coronavirus hospitalizations and deaths were steadily increasing. On Wednesday, the official announcement came via email and text: The last day of class is tomorrow. Faculty scrambled. We had students take home books and materials. Friday, a professional development day for teachers, offered IT workshops. I took a refresher on Google Classroom; reviewed how to create assessments on Google Forms; learned how to sign up for Remind.com; practiced my YouTube video skills. I met the new video platform: Zoom. By day’s end my brain was full.

That Shabbat, my synagogue closed. Shellshocked, I read reports about COVID-19 and wondered whether the nursing home would allow me to visit my mother. On Monday the new version of school began. Would we return to the school building after Pesaḥ?

When I was alone in my apartment, teaching via Zoom, I shared the experience via email.

March 16, 2020

Dear K., 
Day One of online school. Today I used Google Classroom. Reading assignments given on Thursday (our last day in person) yielded the promised assessments on Monday.

It takes hours to set up assignments, post them, and send reminders to each class. The students who usually ask the procedural questions in class were writing to me all day!
The college class I teach on Tuesday evening migrated online as well. I am tired!
Stay Safe!

March 17, 2020
Dear E.,
I hope you are well. News reports are daunting. Strange times. My high school classes emigrated to online instruction this week. I spend hours at the computer setting up assignments and providing constant feedback to students.

Writing class at the university uses Moodle. I post instructions, documents, and assignments for my students to access. They post completed assignments online. Strange to see only small thumbnails of the students.

My high school did a full day of professional development and an online refresher in Zoom. I feel confident. If you have any questions, let me know.

March 17, 2020
D.,
Good to hear things are going well. I am exhausted. Two hours this morning spent posting all the new literature questions for five classes and then four hours (with a break for lunch) grading everyone’s answers from yesterday. 

No contact with Mom since a short phone conversation last week. I wrote her three cards in four days. I write in print, simple stuff that I know she can read/understand. (Dementia is a terrible thing.) The nursing home sends general updates about precautions they are taking. Mom can’t remember how often I visit. Maybe she thinks I only missed visiting yesterday.

March 17, 2020
Dear T.,
 Hope you and the family are well. I’m uploading assignments, answering student email, grading assessments. Made four YouTube videos on literature for my classes. Wondering if I will get good reviews from the critics. Daily I fill out lesson plans for the principal and read administrators’ email. Figuring out Zoom teaching.

Trying not to be paranoid about the virus. Doing lots of hand washing. Glad I do not have to commute.
Wednesday, March 18, 2020
L.,
Kudos to you, master teacher! After tonight’s faculty discussion I gave two classes a Reading Day tomorrow. I just cannot read so many homework assignments! 

Hoping to clarify with my chair exactly what is expected of me vis-á-vis Zoom. Have I gone overboard? D. just has discussions on Zoom; her students have few homework assignments. Remember, in Friday’s meeting Rabbi R said: “Make the teaching/learning serious!”
I am getting cranky—need sleep. Laila tov.

March 20, 2020
Dear D.,
Update. After Google Classroom (I am old-hat at that) and Remind.com (my new skill), I Zoomed! Took attendance, shared notes via “share screen,” used the “whiteboard” and a PDF of the literature. My senior class all showed up at 9:00 am—except for one student. My seventh period class was all in. Period 3 junior class (my large class)—only four students missing. Some first period students were still cuddled up under bedcovers. They did keep their eyes open, listened, and asked questions.

Seniors are concerned about grading, transcripts, and diplomas. I assuaged their fears. The new schedule, with longer break time between classes and fewer periods each day, makes my overwhelmed students so happy. (So am I!)

P., the student whose ADHD behaviors constantly disrupted class, has been submitting his assignments every day, and he attended this morning's class with proper decorum. Zoom may be just what the doctor ordered. He can bounce in his seat and hum—on mute—without distracting others.

Motza’ei Shabbat, March 21
C., 
Shavua tov! Thanks for the link to the Yiddish speech by the doctor. He tries so hard to impress upon the frum community that they can save lives by “not doing” what they usually do.
 
Overwhelmed all week with work: create content/assessments; correct and comment on assessments; answer email queries from students. My commute to work is a few feet. But I’m not getting enough sleep. I try to walk for an hour each afternoon. Yesterday, after three Zoom classes, I logged off and baked a chocolate cake from scratch! (I haven’t done that in at least a year.)  Great to have homemade chocolate cake at my personal Kiddush on Shabbat morning.
 

March 26, 2020
T.,
This distance teaching/learning has become the focus of my waking hours. Zoom classes, YouTube videos, Google Classroom assignments, and Remind.com messages to students. In addition, there are English department meetings, Guidance department meetings, and last night an hour-long faculty meeting (all virtual, of course).
I have become so tech savvy in the past two weeks—so proud of myself!
Stay safe!

March 31, 2020
Y., 
So relieved that you and O. are recovering and did not have to be admitted to the hospital.  
I am cobbling together meals from the leftover ḥametz in the pantry and freezer—supplemented by fresh produce. I ate all the Purim goodies by myself. (Caloric but fun.) Toilet paper and tissues running low. I did not stockpile anything because I was busy figuring out how to pivot to online teaching. Can’t believe I may be making a seder all by myself. 
Refuah sheleimah!

March 31, 2020
R., 
Mom’s nursing home went into lockdown on Purim (only medical personnel may now come in). I speak with Mom via telephone, via the nurses’ station, once a week. She seems mildly confused—as is usual these days. She insists that since she is not sick, I should come to visit her. I write her a short note every day and mail it. She thinks it’s funny. Asks me if I am in summer camp.
 
My days are full. Google Classroom for assignments and assessments, Zoom to teach, Remind.com to remind students about homework. I make YouTube videos about passages in students’ assigned reading. I am not bored! 
Stay safe!

April 7, 2020
C.,
I laughed when I saw the “news” item about the chrain in Spain stuck [mainly] on the plane.
I needed that laugh! Erev Pesaḥ, and I’m a little crazy right now.
While kashering my oven for Pesaḥ, the keypad went berserk! I turned off the circuit breaker to stop the infernal beeping. The owner’s manual and product website are clear: The keypad needs replacing. Called a repair guy. Pandemic—remember? No repairmen are going on calls! So … I bought a one-burner hotplate to cook my food. Never a dull moment.
Wishing you and your family a ḥag sameaḥ!

Epilogue
In June 2020, my mother passed away. Only 15 people were allowed at the funeral. Shivah was on Zoom, and condolence notes came via email and snail mail.

We returned to in-person school in late August. HEPA filters were in every room. Desks were distanced. Students were in pods, and masks were mandated. We ate in open-sided tents outdoors—even in the cold. Every Monday and Wednesday morning all students, teachers, and personnel in the building dribbled into small plastic tubes; the saliva testing helped stop the spread. I learned to identify students by their eyes, hairstyles, and posture. Sometimes students had to quarantine because of exposure. So we teachers taught to the room as well as the Zoom.

Wondering what school will look like this school year.

Chaye Kohl teaches English at Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in New Jersey and is an adjunct professor at Adelphi University in New York. She is part of the Heritage Testimonies cohort at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City.

Callouts:
New lessons were thrust upon educators in March 2020; we pivoted from in-person teaching to virtual classrooms in a matter of days.

Wondering what school will look like this school year.

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