Beyond Borders: Glimpsing the Underlying Purposes of Day School Education in the Midst of a Pandemic
By Alex Pomson and Nettie Aharon
This paper examines data gathered from Jewish day school students in North America, Europe and Argentina about their experiences of remote schooling during the first 4 months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Data report on student access to technology, student satisfaction with the remote-learning pedagogies their schools employed, students’ feelings about what they gained from this experience, and how Judaic studies and general studies compared when delivered remotely. The paper provides an opportunity to probe cultural and structural differences between day school education in different cultural contexts and especially the differences between more communitarian and more individualistic school orientations.
Whether conceived as “social experience” (Dewey, 1938/1997) or as “encounter with another” (Buber, 1947/2002), education has long been assumed to occur through in-person interactions, or what Goffman (1963) coined as “co-presence.” People can learn alone from books and for more than a century have been learning through long-distance correspondence courses, but until the emergence of online communications media in the 1980s, most education involved both the instructor and the learner being together in the same physical space (Garrison, 1985).
Since March 2020, most educational interventions and initiatives have had to pivot to the remote delivery of services and programs. For some, this has involved the expansion of already existing capacities; for others, it has required a radical reimagining of educational practice. In some cases, it has resulted in uncovering ways of reaching never previously imagined audiences. For others it has led to being unplugged from the core activities that make them relevant. For schools, tethered for so long to classroom-based teaching and learning in brick-and-mortar settings, it has meant reimagining and reconfiguring almost everything they do.
This paper explores students’ experience of remotely delivered Jewish day school education during the first 6 months of the COVID-19 pandemic and sheds light on how young people enrolled in Jewish day schools experienced what, at least in terms of its mode of delivery, was an acutely disruptive educational experience. In doing so, drawing on a data set that includes the responses of day school students from seven different countries, this study provides an opportunity to revisit ultimate questions about the purposes of day school education and how those purposes get embodied in schools’ practices. Students’ experience of schooling during COVID-19 is in the foreground; in the background are some of the biggest questions about what Jewish day schools are for.