“What’s it like working inside a school building during Covid?”
That’s the question I get asked most often from friends and family. Most people are working remotely these days, so the very thought of going into work, non-virtually, is usually met with raised eyebrows and a look of terror. Yet I am delighted! I feel lucky that The Idea School, where I work as the school psychologist, is open for school five days a week – without a hybrid zoom option.
“So, what is it really like?” I’m asked. The first day back in the building was the happiest school opening I can recall in the 35 years I’ve been in the field of education. Students and staff alike were practically giddy with anticipation and joy at being off our zoom screens, out of our homes, and connecting in person, albeit 6 feet away from each other.
Simply put, teens crave direct human interaction and, therefore, being socially isolated at home since March was excruciatingly difficult for high school students. While school-on-zoom continued to educate, it could not provide the fun elements of being together in the building; the unexpected interludes with friends, lunch time, recess, chatting with peers between periods, working together on Project Based Learning (PBL) activities. When school began in September, our students were more than ready to resume direct human contact – even if wearing face masks and forced to stand 6 feet apart.
The second question I am inevitably asked is ‘’but aren’t you afraid?”
Any concerns I may have had were alleviated by the extraordinary measures and preparations made in advance of returning to school. The Idea School faculty spent the summer meticulously planning and preparing according to the latest CDC guidelines and Department of Health standards for reopening during Covid. We had countless discussions on best practices for in-person classes during a pandemic. Perhaps a silver lining to the pandemic is that it will finally debunk one of the greatest myths of all times – that teachers do not work in the summer!
Eerily, the classroom of today bears a striking resemblance to the school settings at the turn of the last century. Gone are the kidney-shaped tables and collaborative workstations, replaced instead by individual desks to create the required 6 feet separation between students. Paradoxically, this microscopic germ has turned back the clock on progressive strides in education, negatively impacting the physical layout of our classrooms. Plexiglass shields, and an endless supply of sanitizer sprays and face masks are additional mandatory accessories to ensure safety standards.
In expectation that some students may end up in quarantine, we spent hours during the summer experimenting with the zoom technology in each classroom, angling the position of the camera exactly right so that if necessary, a student at home could see both teacher and classmates while learning on zoom.
Mask breaks – enabling students to walk outside without their masks on, while maintaining social distance – were put into the schedule to alleviate the discomfort of wearing a mask all day. It was decided that weather permitting, classes will take place in outdoor pavilions, and breakfast and lunch will be served outdoors as well. The Idea School is fortunate to be located at the JCC in Tenafly N.J. with sprawling grounds, and leafy wooded and non-wooded areas, making it possible to have a variety of outdoor learning experiences.
Much thought went into every aspect of our return to school, recalling the saying in the Mishna (masechet avodah zarah) He who prepares ahead of Shabbat will eat on Shabbat. He who prepares ahead of time will see fruit of this labor. Fortunately, we prepared well and in advance and thankfully things seem to be working smoothly. We pray it will continue.
The students have been amazing; they are following the guidelines of wearing masks, fully covering the mouth and nose while indoors, and staying a safe distance apart when outside. Everyone seems motivated to make it work. We all hope not to return to zoom-school if possible. It seems that Covid has taught us to appreciate the simple mundane things that we had taken for granted previously – including the ability to attend school in person.
And when it becomes necessary, infrequently, to remind students to follow the rules, we do. Simply put, it is a matter of life and death.
Mask breaks, outdoor classes whenever possible, new furniture, new school layout, improved zoom technology, hand sanitizers, masks, plexiglass shields, and more. We attempted to trouble shoot for all possibilities, we prepared painstakingly in advance and so far, so good. A couple of students and one teacher had to be quarantined briefly and the zoom option was successfully implemented. We are grateful and hopeful that our preparations will continue to bear the fruit of our labor.
I recently heard a beautiful explanation for the sounds of the shofar that we heard at the end of Yom Kippur that can serve as a guidepost going forward, to help us navigate this complicated time.
At the end of the fast, the initial tekiyah is one steady note representing the normalcy of our pre – Covid lives (when we all went to work and school without giving it a second thought). It is followed by shevarim, three short notes indicating the initial disruption to our daily routine (the time of our sheltering in place). Then comes t’ruah – nine abrupt notes that conjure up shards, a shattering of our conventional existence, that has followed (the prolonged social distancing and quarantine that we have endured since March 2020.)
Yet, the final tekiya g’dolah, the single long blast reminds us that order, and our hopes for the future will be restored in the end – as we slowly tip toe our way back into school, even with restrictions, but with an eye towards a better future.
We have now returned to school after the Sukkot break. Fortunately, no one in The Idea School family was exposed to the virus during the holiday season. May everyone in our community, and beyond, continue to be safe.
Dr. Tani Foger
The Idea School