Community building, soft skills focus of back to school for Jewish Ottawa

As September kicks into high gear, there’s one thing on the minds of many families — back to school. While changing directives from the provincial government and the Delta variant of COVID-19 have caused problems with planning for the year ahead, both the Ottawa Jewish Community School (OJCS) and Torah Day School of Ottawa (TDSO) are looking forward to getting back in the classroom.

The expectations this year were "a little more normal than our expectations going into last year. We’ve been wrong about every prediction so far and we’ll likely be wrong about this one, but based on the guidance from the province on private schools … Many safety protocols will carry forward to start this year,” said Dr. Jon Mitzmacher, head of school for OJCS. “The general sense is that things will look and feel a little more normal than last year.”

Because of late ministerial guidelines, OJCS was only able to put out a full FAQ on procedures and protocols for this year in late August. The Jewish Federation of Ottawa has communicated to the leadership of both schools that they will provide a second year of emergency funding to ensure that the schools can implement all the necessary protocols and to help with any additional needs for tuition assistance for families hard hit economically by the pandemic.

“Based on what we can see so far, our parents seem to feel good about where we’ve landed as a school and are optimistic about getting kids back in the building,” said Mitzmacher.

All the adults in the building at OJCS will be vaccinated. The province requires all educators and schools to self-report and at first pass, the OJCS staff have all been double vaccinated.

“That gives you that added degree of confidence,” said Mitzmacher. OJCS hasn’t put a double-vaccination policy in place — unlike Torah Day, which has a vaccination policy in place for both staff and older students.

“Our board has committed to teachers, parents and the community that the school will be as safe as possible,” said Rabbi Boruch Perton. “There’s been some pushback, but our board held two meetings to discuss it in-depth and remains committed to the decision.”

Beyond the vaccine policy, Torah Day is also taking a unique approach to learning this year.

“We’re looking at learning recovery, to use a significant amount of time to find the kids who fell through the cracks, so they can seamlessly transition back to in-school learning,” said Rabbi Perton.

“We are addressing the emotional and social impact of online learning first. We’ve worked with our teachers to prepare them for the return to school and whatever issues might come up over the beginning of the school year.”

Torah Day has put resources in place to allow for more one-on-one or small group learning opportunities too, and will — if needed — offer synchronous Zoom learning opportunities for those not wishing to attend in person.

At OJCS, they’re keeping some of the Zoom-style learning elements that worked for kids who might be more introverted or quiet.

“Not every child feels comfortable raising their hand in a class of peers, but being able to use back channels and chat functions, for some of our students that was a lot more comfortable and authentic,” said Mitzmacher. “We’re going to continue to use those chat functions to make sure all our kids feel comfortable sharing their voice.”

Mitzmacher said they’re not looking to go back to how it was “before COVID,” but rather looking forward to this new learning environment.

“There are a lot of interesting and positive things, developments, skills that came out of what our teachers needed to do to be successful [during COVID],” said Mitzmacher. “We want to carry that into the next school year.”

Both schools are focused on rebuilding communities and relationships, recognizing that some of the soft skills children need are only learned in in-person environments.

“We as a school believe that for the social and emotional and developmental best practices, that kids should be in school,” said Rabbi Perton.

And if they have to pivot again due to COVID-19 restrictions? Well, both schools know now that they can do it, and do it successfully.

“We’re that much better at it from having had to do it multiple times,” said Mitzmacher. “It would not be a huge upheaval if we had to make that transition again.”

Rabbi Perton said they’re optimistic that they won’t have to pivot back to all remote learning, but they do have a plan if it needs to happen.

“We have a plan in place to continue seamlessly if we need to transition back to online learning,” said Rabbi Perton. “In addition to that, we have sufficient technology to provide for students the tools to be engaged in online learning.”

Just on August 27, the Ottawa Carleton District School Board released its back-to-school plan, which cuts out field trips and extracurricular activities for most students. Assemblies will be held outdoors or virtually, and all staff and students must do daily screening for COVID-19 symptoms. Masks are required for all students in Grades 1-12, as well as for all staff.

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