When the coronavirus hit, schoolteachers became part of the support system
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When the coronavirus hit, schoolteachers became part of the support system

Teaching in masks, dealing with asymptomatic students and cleaning classrooms, teachers are handling the crisis with composure

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

  • Israeli students have to wear masks and send or give in signed notes at the beginning of each school day to ensure they are healthy during the 2020 coronavirus crisis (Gershon Elinon/Flash90)
    Israeli students have to wear masks and send or give in signed notes at the beginning of each school day to ensure they are healthy during the 2020 coronavirus crisis (Gershon Elinon/Flash90)
  • Elementary school at the Orot Etzion school in Efrat wore protective face masks when they returned to school on May 3, 2020 for the first time since the outbreak of the coronavirus. (Gershon Elinon/Flash90)
    Elementary school at the Orot Etzion school in Efrat wore protective face masks when they returned to school on May 3, 2020 for the first time since the outbreak of the coronavirus. (Gershon Elinon/Flash90)
  • An illustrative photo of kindergarten teachers cleaning a classroom at Emunah daycare in the city of Modiin on May 7, 2020 (Courtesy Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
    An illustrative photo of kindergarten teachers cleaning a classroom at Emunah daycare in the city of Modiin on May 7, 2020 (Courtesy Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
  • Israeli students when they returned to school for the first time since the outbreak in early May, wearing face masks, showing signed medical notes and keeping social distance (Courtesy Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
    Israeli students when they returned to school for the first time since the outbreak in early May, wearing face masks, showing signed medical notes and keeping social distance (Courtesy Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Orit Yaffe, a fourth grade homeroom teacher at Zalman Aran, a Jerusalem public elementary school, has less than one week left of the 2020 school year, and she hopes to make it through without another coronavirus quarantine.

She already suffered through one two-week quarantine, not counting the prolonged stay-at-home period in March and April.

“I’m very nervous,” said Yaffe. “Tomorrow, I could have a student who doesn’t know he’s sick with the coronavirus because kids are asymptomatic. They’ll close us again and we’ll sit at home, again.”

In mid-June, just weeks after Israeli elementary schools returned to full capacity following nearly two months of online learning, eight students from Zalman Aran were diagnosed as corona carriers, part of the ripple effect following a larger breakout in the city’s Gymnasia Rechavia high school.

Israeli students have to wear masks and send or give in signed notes at the beginning of each school day to ensure they are healthy during the 2020 coronavirus crisis (Gershon Elinon/Flash90)

Zalman Aran was closed, and everyone — faculty and students — were put on quarantine for two weeks.

“I was near those sick kids,” said Yaffe. “I was their monitor at recess and I sat with them, and they talked to me, because you know, kids talk to you and what, you’re not going to talk back to them?”

Yaffe wasn’t infected at the time, which she discovered for certain after taking two COVID-19 tests. Once she returned to teaching two weeks later, she didn’t send her own school-aged child back to school, fearful about having her contract the virus.

She’s aware of the ironies of the situation.

In the annals of the coronavirus, Israeli teachers may very well warrant a place alongside health workers. These chronically underpaid educators were forced into an unusual situation during the final half of the school year, teaching virtually for weeks with Zoom lessons and emailed assignments. After lockdown was lifted, they returned to classrooms wearing masks and doing their best to maintain social distancing.

Once they were back at school, there were other new responsibilities, including monitoring the halls during breaks and at recess, and cleaning their classrooms between classes.

An illustrative photo of kindergarten teachers cleaning a classroom at Emunah daycare in the city of Modiin on May 7, 2020 (Courtesy Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

“No one taught me how to clean the classrooms,” said Tomer Perets, a civics teacher at the Tichonet high school in Tel Aviv. “The Education Ministry didn’t care. They just expected us to do it.”

It was all about bleach for Zalman Aran teachers as well, said Karen David Abrams, an English teacher at the elementary school. They scoured and cleaned the classrooms when it was summarily decided to open it to all students.

While Israeli schools were initially meant to extend the school year until July 13, a final court ruling is shuttering the schools by June 30, and it’s not a moment too soon for the teachers in this protracted, complicated coronavirus season.

“There is no good solution,” said Abrams, who teaches English to fifth and sixth graders. “I hope that over the summer the powers that be will use the time to understand that this is the reality and come up with some better ways to deal with it.”

Teacher Karen Davis Abrams who underwent a 2-week quarantine when eight students in her Jerusalem elementary school came down with Covid-19 after two weeks back at school (Courtesy Karen Davis Abrams)

Abrams said she was happy to go back to school in May, when only first through third graders were sent back and divided into smaller class pods that made teaching far easier than usual.

“Not being in school was a huge hole in my life,” said Abrams, who had an easier time than most adjusting to online teaching during March and April. “As tiring as it is to be a teacher, it also gives me incredible energy and I like my students and missed the interaction with them.”

During those trial first weeks back at school, desks were separated, kids weren’t piled on top of each other (though neither did they have the recommended two-meter, or 6.5-foot, distance), and Abrams found she could be vigilant about the rules.

Within less than two weeks, however, the Education Ministry made the snap decision to send all kids back to school, due to concerns about the plummeting Israeli economy and all the working adults who were forced to stay at home with their school-age children.

The decision to return all children to their regular school routine was “too fast, it wasn’t careful enough,” said Yaffe. “The economy was feeling the effects of the coronavirus. They did it fast, fast, fast and not in stages like they had at first. Within two weeks, we were all in quarantine.”

There’s no such thing as stay-at-home moms in Israel, remarked Abrams.

“Parents rely on the public education system as childcare from age 3,” she said. “The crisis was very real in Israel for those reasons.”

Israeli students when they returned to school for the first time since the outbreak in early May, wearing face masks, showing signed medical notes and keeping social distance (Courtesy Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

When students did return to school, it didn’t help to have an extreme heatwave that began the same day, making it very difficult to wear masks all the time.

Wearing a mask for six or seven hours of teaching was impossible, said teachers. They need to see the kids’ faces and expressions, and for the kids to be able to clearly hear them as well.

“I don’t take the mask off, even though it cuts you off and leaves no air,” said Yaffe. “And the kids don’t always understand me and I don’t understand them. I really felt that the teachers were sent to the battlefield without a way of being protected.”

Kfar Hayarok high school teacher Rachel Tobol struggled to teach while at home with her toddlers, but had a hard time teaching with a mask when school was back in session (Courtesy Rachel Tobol)

Wearing masks in the classroom was awful, said Rachel Tobol, an English teacher at Kfar Hayarok high school in Tel Aviv.

“Students were supposed to wear it all times except when they’re speaking, but it’s very hard for them to do it. So they wear it below their nose or chin,” said Tobol.

For Perets, who teaches 11th and 12th graders at Tichonet, a paperless high school that relies on laptop learning even in the classroom, the online learning of March and April was far preferable to being back at school during the coronavirus.

They already used Zoom, he was accustomed to being in touch with his students by WhatsApp, and he found he could cover his curriculum with relative ease.

Coming back to school, however, was much more difficult.

“The mask is just ridiculous and hard to wear all day,” he said. “The kids take them off the minute they leave the classroom.”

He also resented the communication in legalese sent by the Education Ministry, which told teachers that if they did get sick, it was their responsibility and not the school’s.

High school civics teacher Tomer Perets (middle) with two of his students, in the days before masks and social distancing (Courtesy Tomer Perets)

The ministry’s regulations were nearly impossible to follow, said Abrams. There were new rules offered every day with regard to the COVID-19, and principals and teachers were expected to follow suit.

In many ways, teaching from home, despite the obvious complications of home and family, was easier.

“It was a really big learning experience,” said Abrams, adding that it was much more complicated for some of the more veteran teachers.  “I learned that I can learn really quickly, think on my toes, and that I was able to adapt to the new situation, even if it meant I was sometimes teaching from my bedroom.”

Yaffe, who said she’s not technologically minded, had to quickly learn how to use Zoom and adapt her lessons to the screen. She managed, but felt that the smaller capsule classes had the best results, with better learning, attention and successful result.

Perets, the civics teacher, said he got creative with a virtual Zoom tour of south Tel Aviv rather than his usual end-of-year outing and having 35 students over to his house for exam guidance when his babysitter canceled.

“If I didn’t like this work, I wouldn’t be able to do it,” he said.

Bottom line, said the teachers, the Education Ministry has to get much more creative with students and classes before school starts again in September.

“We have a problem now and the solution can’t be found from the reality we have before the coronavirus,” said Abrams. “Maybe they should ask the teachers for some ideas.”

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