Only now have millions of Israeli children – but not all of them, including the 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th grades and those in “red” and “orange” cities and towns where COVID-19 infections remain too high – returned to their classrooms. They were forced to stay away from them more during the past year than at any point in the history of the State of Israel and more than children in any other country in the world.
One of the many ways the pandemic has affected daily life – and perhaps that with the longest-term effects – is by shaking the very foundations of the education system. Israeli children from age three through 18 have been away from their kindergartens and school classrooms more during the past year than at any point in the history of the State.
As was experienced in countries around the world, school closures and the transition to remote learning greatly disrupted the learning experience for pupils and deepened existing gaps among them, according to researchers at Jerusalem’s Taub Center for Social Policy Studies. While pupils from strong socioeconomic backgrounds can more easily adjust to remote learning by Zoom and other means because they have the benefit of several computers at home, a fast Internet connection and quiet surroundings in which to study, weaker populations have less access to the necessary infrastructure – and the ability of parents with a lower socioeconomic status to help their children is also more limited.
Access to key resources for remote learning also differs across Israel’s population groups. While only two percent of pupils who are not ultra-Orthodox (haredi) have no access to a computer or the Internet, 23% of students in the Arab sector lack these, as do 41% of haredi pupils.
The number of children in a family also has an effect on students’ ability to participate in remote learning, and families from low socioeconomic backgrounds have more children on average. Even with adequate resources, it is more difficult to meet the needs of certain types of students, such as preschoolers, pupils with special needs and youth-at-risk by using remote teaching.
Teachers know that school are institutions that provide much more to children than “babysitting” and imparting knowledge. This also means that the damage from school closures goes beyond academic achievement and includes – among other things – risk of family violence, reduced support services, fewer social interactions and the cancellation of school lunches. For most pupils from all backgrounds, school is a place to develop social skills and foster relationships with peers, and for many it can also be a safe place that provides them with extra support or a place that helps them meet their daily nutritional needs.
Not only have the disruptions been difficult for pupils – and for their parents – but they have also presented challenges and required big adjustments on the part of teachers. In a survey of teachers conducted by the Taub Center and the Israel Teacher’s Union after the first lockdown, 60% of the respondents stated that their pupils found it difficult to maintain a high level of motivation and interest during remote lessons. Teachers also had to learn how to use remote teaching technologies, adapt their lessons to be taught remotely and cope with disciplinary issues when not in the classroom with their pupils.
But in the survey, teachers also reported a number of positive developments that emerged from the experience of remote learning. First, the survey results indicated that remote teaching can lead to empowerment and autonomy. About 65% of the teachers said that remote teaching strengthened their professional abilities; 43% felt that it reinforced their independence; and over 80% agreed that they had learned to solve unexpected problems.
In addition, teachers reported feeling more familiar with their pupils and their families. An additional benefit has been the ability of teachers to view lessons given by other teachers in the same school and even to the same class, get new ideas for presenting material and share lesson plans and teaching aids. This makes it possible to learn from colleagues to a much greater extent.
Indeed, teachers were able to find opportunities for personal development while facing these difficult circumstances. Education experts, for their part, are asking critical questions about how the Israeli school system could and should make long-term structural changes informed by the experience of learning during the coronavirus crisis.
As Taub Center education policy program chairman Nachum Blass found in his recent research, fundamental changes that must be made to the system include need for the Education Ministry to improve its preparedness for times of crisis, redefine the roles between central and local government authorities when it comes to education, maintain the reduced class sizes created in the wake of the crisis and redouble efforts to reduce scholastic gaps that existed even before the crisis and have most certainly widened since its outset.
In addition, said Blass, the system needs to prepare for a future education model that combines learning in and outside of school, with remote learning focusing more on providing academic knowledge and skills and in-person learning focusing more on interpersonal encounter and the acquisition of social and emotional skills. The balance between remote and traditional learning will have to vary across students of different ages, given the differences in learning at each stage of the education system from preschool to high school. Teachers will also have to be taught to imiprove both their ability to use new technologies and foster personal growth.
In addition, incorporating remote learning will probably also require changes in how both pupils’ academic achievements and teachers’ work are evaluated. “The post-Coronavirus educational reality is a kind of unplanned, though important, socio-pedagogical experiment that will affect the extent to which remote teaching will continue to be part of the education system even in normal times, and measures should be taken to intensify its advantages and minimize its disadvantages, Blass concluded.