In recent weeks, the coronavirus pandemic has forced congregational religious schools to move all of their classes online, thrusting teachers, students, families and administrators into somewhat unfamiliar territory.

“It happened quickly,” says Jillian Manko, director of education at Bolton Street Synagogue. “Thursday morning [Mar. 12], everything seemed normal, and within two hours everything started shutting down.”

Fortunately, she says, the Roland Park synagogue’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Andy Gordon, was prescient and well-prepared.

“He made sure two weeks in advance that I had a plan and that we were prepared to teach from home,” says Manko.

Bolton Street is now offering a robust schedule of programming for students and their families. On Sunday mornings, students and teachers join a Zoom community Havdalah service before breaking into classes. Following classes, the entire synagogue community reconvenes for minyan.

“P.J. Shema,” which includes singing and storytelling, is held on Tuesday evenings and Friday nights before online Shabbat services. In addition, Manko holds a Zoom conference call with her madrachim, or high school teaching assistants.

“We talk about our week — how school went, what they miss, a new hobby they picked up,” she says. “Some have started baking challah, some are making it to our virtual Shabbat services. They are realizing the importance of separating Shabbat from the rest of the week, and really appreciate this time together.

“We’ve found different pockets during the week when [students and teachers] can meet,” Manko says. “People are looking for community now more than ever, and we’re really glad to provide it.”

A Surplus of Time

Brad Cohen, Baltimore Hebrew Congregation’s education director, says his religious school has been offering three educational sessions for its pre-kindergarten to seventh-grade students on Sunday mornings.

“We’re working with teachers to make Zoom classes interactive with weekly story-times and singalongs,” he says.

In addition, Cohen says, “Any families can request one-on-one Hebrew tutoring during this time. I have about six kids doing that.”

Meanwhile, Alicia Gallant, BHC’s assistant education director, runs the congregation’s teen programming.

“Alicia is co-creating the classes and gatherings with the students, and they lead them together,” says Cohen. “Most of the teens have more time than they’ve ever had before. The pandemic brings a lot of ambivalence because they don’t know what will happen in the future. These programs help the teens to root to community and connect.”

Before the pandemic hit, Beth El Congregation’s Berman-Lipavsky Religious School operated Tuesday and Sunday classes on its main Pikesville campus, as well once a week at its five “Hebrew School in Your Neighborhood” satellite locations.

Since Beth El’s programming moved online, religious school director Amy Goldberg has focused on Sunday morning programs for the entire school community. In addition, teachers schedule Zoom meetings for their individual classes. Music and movement classes are also part of the online schedule.

“What’s been nice is that teachers jumped on board immediately,” says Goldberg, who successfully converted previously scheduled Passover programs to virtual experiences.

“We were supposed to go to a matzoh factory in Montgomery County. Instead, we had a virtual matzoh factory tour. We also had a cooking demonstration about how to prepare a seder plate when you might not have the right things. There was fantastic participation, and it was kind of nice to see the parents participating in their kitchens.”

Closer Connections, Sacred Space

Michelle Gold, director of the Goldsmith Early Childhood Center of Chizuk Amuno Congregation, says she has enjoyed having more sustained contact with parents during this challenging period.

“Even though we’re apart, we see closer connections between teachers and parents,” she says. “Because people are [normally] so busy, we’re actually seeing more of some parents.”

Gold says since the school building closed, she and her staff have been “trying to think out of the box. We’ve had to explain to parents, ‘Don’t think of Zoom as part of your child’s screen time. This [Zoom platform] is your classroom now.’ We tell them to set up a sacred space for learning, especially for the 4- and 5-year-olds.”

Gold says the older students are meeting virtually with their teachers daily, while the 2- and 3-year-old classes are meeting three times a week.

“On top of the Zoom classes, some teachers are sending things home like Bingo or matching games that the kids can prepare to share with their teachers,” she says.

Goldsmith has incorporated all of its “specials,” such as library, music and drama classes, into its online curriculum.

“We’ve tried to go beyond Zoom meetings,” says Gold. “The teachers have put themselves out there to talk to kids whenever they want. When a child has a birthday, they’re getting a FaceTime message. I feel really good about what we’re doing.”

At Chizuk Amuno’s Rosenbloom Religious School, the staff is busier than ever, says Melissa Berman, assistant director of RRS and Young Family Program coordinator at the synagogue.

“All teachers are doing Zoom classes Wednesday and Sundays,” she says. “We’re trying to be more creative in the framework of what kids are capable of doing at home.”

For example, Rosenbloom runs a “Ma Nishtana Challenge” every Passover season for its second-grade students.

“It’s a big deal for them,” Berman says. “They practice and practice. This year, we still did it. We listened to them [recite The Four Questions] online. Usually, the kids get rewarded with a box of Passover candy and a Barnes & Noble’s gift card. This year, they still got the gift cards. We also have a superhero challenge when kids can either dress up or draw a picture of their superhero, and talk about their super powers. They get certificates, and everyone receives a newsletter update about the challenge.” (The superhero challenge was also held virtually this year.) Rosenbloom will also present online drama and music classes this week.

“We’re doing the best we can to maintain community,” says Berman. “I can’t say we’ll ever be 100 percent because it’s so important to really be together. Nothing will be like that first Shabbat [after the pandemic is over] when we can all get back together.”