More than 100 participants from around the ORT network have taken part in a special Covid-19 briefing to hear directly from the teachers and administrators on the frontline of the organization’s efforts to continue its educational provision to hundreds of thousands of young people.
Supporters and colleagues in countries including Britain, Israel, Canada, the United States, Italy, Mexico, Switzerland, Russia, Ukraine, and South Africa, heard World ORT President Conrad Giles describe ORT as a “resolute” group which would not be stopped by coronavirus.
Monday’s session included updates from ORT figures in Israel, Italy, Russia and Mexico, who outlined the efforts being made to provide remote learning, to reach out and help others in each community, and details of some of the positive initiatives being developed across the network.
WATCH: Play back the Covid-19 ORT briefing:
Dr Giles said: “I’m confident that just as has been the case in the previous 140 years of our existence, our outstanding education network has professionals doing their job in spite of the challenges they face.
“Let’s recommit ourselves to doing what we’ve always done – and take care of the youngsters whose lives we are here to help and improve.”
Dan Green, Acting Director General and CEO of World ORT, said that in the four weeks since the first school in the network was forced to close – in Milan, Italy – all of ORT’s schools and universities had now shut their doors and had moved their classes and programs online.
He said the network was not immune from the disease, with parents of some French students having died, and one school principal also fighting for his life.
Mr Green paid tribute to our teachers and support staff who have worked tirelessly over recent weeks to move schools online. Attention was now turning towards being able to ensure every student, whatever their circumstances, has the technology needed to continue their education during the lockdown, as well as preparing for the inevitable economic impact of coronavirus on students and their families around the world. Ensuring families can continue to pay private school fees will be one priority.
He praised the community-minded initiatives that have been created, many by students themselves, to take care of the wellbeing of older and more vulnerable members of communities around the world.
“We cannot celebrate our 140th anniversary in the ways we were going to, but we can celebrate our innovation and adaptability,” he said. “We will continue, we will endure and we will come through this with a stronger network. We are equipped to deal with the challenges. When we are through this, we in ORT will all look back in pride at how we dealt with these huge challenges presented to us.”
Mikhail Libkin, director of ORT Russia, explained how the 16 day-schools and almost 10,000 students in the former Soviet Union were adapting to the situation.
He said: “It’s a huge educational system. We are working on the principle that every student, even from primary school age, has two or three lessons a day, and for middle and high school between three and five hours a day.
“We are also supporting different informal activities. We need not only to educate our students but to support them, and their parents. Many of the parents are working remotely from their homes.
“The main challenge is to continue the learning process – no one cancelled the state exams. We are responsible for our kids. Most of the ORT schools had already developed resources for distance learning, we have used these tools before. But that didn’t mean all the schools were ready for reinventing the whole process. We have spent a lot of time and effort training teachers – how to use Zoom and other tools.”
Challenges have included having enough computer hardware for students – where families have a desktop or laptop computer, they may not have enough equipment for all the children in the family to work at the same time as the parents, for example.
Most schools have created psychological support hotlines for students, parents and teachers – who will lose some of their salaries due to the closure of extra-curricular sessions.
Mr Libkin added: “We need to stay together – as a team and as a family. Our communication between all of us is extremely important. This is what will help us deal with this crisis. Distance learning is not a copy of a traditional educational model, it’s a different philosophy, a different educational world. Don’t forget about informal education.
“Use the time for experimenting as well – it’s a unique situation and we have to experiment – we have never had this opportunity to try new ways of communication, new tools, these are the only positives we have in this moment.”
Amelie Esquenazi, ORT’s networking co-ordinator for Latin America, described how teachers across the region had been keeping in touch with vulnerable students, how children had been running their own yoga classes online for peers, and how a new tikkun olam initiative for low-income families was ensuring food parcels were delivered on a regular basis.
“Despite this global crisis we have learned to live in a positive way – bringing assistance to families,” she said.
“Solidarity is a precious value – and we have it. We are in a tunnel, but I expect to see the light very soon.”
There was a similar message of positivity from Amos Gopher, director of the Kfar Silver Youth Village near Ashkelon in Israel. He explained which aspects of the village were still functioning for Naale students – who have moved to Israel for their studies and have no other home to go to.
He said there had been difficulties communicating with some children from lower socio-economic backgrounds who were now at home with their parents but did not have access to computers and other online tools.
“I’m sure the human spirit, and the spirit in Israel and here in Kfar Silver will overcome all the challenges. The children are willing to do everything to overcome what is happening, to continue their studies and to do the farming to help provide food for the country,” he said.
Dany Maknouz, an ORT representative and teacher at Milan’s Scuola Della Comunita Ebraica, gave details of how Italy been desperately hard hit by the virus.
She said that while hospital services were exhausted, the situation was slowly improving after a month of lockdown and “many” bereavements in the Jewish community.
“Connections like ORT are now, more than ever, our way out of isolation,” she said, adding that she felt the school was fighting for its future. Students had been left struggling to visualize their futures or university and job prospects.
Judy Menikoff, Chair of ORT’s Board of Trustees, told the briefing participants: “This is a plague we will also overcome. Pesach is a time for us to think of those who do not have what we have, and how we can help them. We all feel part of a global community – we represent 300,000 beneficiaries of the ORT family.”
Dr Giles closed the session by echoing that sentiment. He said: “The needs are changing, they are increasing, but they are clear. What is clear to me, is that we need every one of you.”