The pivot: How Ottawa Jewish day schools are finding a COVID silver lining

By Angelica Haggert

Even if you’re not a parent, the question of “in or out” when it comes to schools has dominated a lot of the last year. “In” usually means overall community life is going well (i.e., COVID infection rates are lower), but “out” can mean a period of extra strain caused by lockdown that puts stress on mental health, community resources, and employment. 

In mid-March of 2020, the Ottawa Jewish Community School (OJCS) had about four days to figure out how to transition from in-class learning to at-home learning. 

“I cannot believe how quickly things have moved and I cannot believe how quickly our school and our teachers have mobilized a response,” said Dr. Jon Mitzmacher, head of school for OJCS, at the time. In March, and still today, after endless pivots of “in or out,” Mitzmacher credits the parents for their resourcefulness and resilience.

“With all the challenges of transitioning to telecommuting, preparing for creative childcare, and just the nuts and bolts of being at home for a sustained period of time – plus balancing all the anxiety and concern that is so understandable – we have been so blessed to see such positive attitudes and growth mindsets.”

Tal Scher, who has two children at Torah Day School of Ottawa and chairs the board, credits the teachers for their ability to keep kids engaged in front of screens during the latest lockdown, which only lifted earlier this month for schools.

“I’m beyond impressed (with how the school handled things). No one’s ever had to do this before,” said Scher. “They had to think of solutions to keep the younger kids engaged on unique platforms — imagine my son, a wild rambunctious five-year-old, sitting through class most of the day.”

Scher said his son is thriving despite the changes.

“Teachers found ways of using technology to keep the kids engaged, paying attention and they really learned,” said Scher. “The school was very responsive, very quick to send out updates. I have to give the credit to the teachers — the lockdown kept getting extended and the teachers would prepare packets for parents to pick up, never knowing what was next.”

At OJCS, the key focus as the at-home life began was the distinction between school-at-home and homeschooling, recognizing that parents were not necessarily ready or able to become primary educators, even if that education was happening in the home. They took it “one day at a time,” said Mitzmacher, recognizing and accepting when things didn’t work, always cognizant that each family’s needs would be unique. 

It turns out, a lot of good came from at-home learning — at least that’s what Mitzmacher and the OJCS team discovered. From the faculty better able to pivot and adapt to facilities that now support a hybrid model of learning, to the ability to hear from quieter students who might have previously been drowned out in a noisy classroom … there was a lot of silver linings over the last year.

Scher chuckles as he thanks the day students went back in the classroom at the start of February. 

“I feel a sense of security and safety for my children, being in a small class environment,” he said, confident that the school could effectively do contact tracing if it was necessary. 

“I’m just really thankful to our teachers. They really stepped up,” said Scher. “It’s incredible being back, a weight off all our shoulders, but I can’t imagine our teachers doing a better job.”


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