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Thursday, April 9, 2020

A Thought Experiment

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The year is 1980. I’m a novice head of school at a pluralistic Jewish middle school-high school in suburban Philadelphia. I communicate with teachers by handwritten memos and in-person meetings, with students by assemblies or flyers taped to the walls (PA systems existed, but not in my school), with parents by letters or push-button phone calls, with the community by mimeographed flyers in schoolbags or town meetings.

What would we have done in 1980 if a pandemic like COVID-19 had struck?

    • We would not have emailed or WhatsApped our school plans and schedules and instructions. If it had been prior to the safer-at-home advisory, we would have sent a flyer home in schoolbags announcing an emergency town meeting. If it had been too late for that, we would have mobilized volunteers to call every family.
    • We would not have held Zoom meetings for each teaching period every day. We would have mailed daily instructions to each family and daily self-guided assignments to every student. And teachers would have given out their home phone numbers for students to call them with questions.
    • We would not have written to our listservs or joined webinars to pool our wisdom and resources with other schools. We would have picked up the phone and called one or two trusted colleagues.
    • We would not have convened advisory sessions with students in Google Hangouts. We would have called every student and parent to check in with them individually, and possibly have paid home visits – while maintaining social distancing, of course.
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We would have lost the speed and the ease of instant, mass digital communication; we would have gained personal, one-to-one in-depth connection. We would have lost the instantaneous profusion of information; we would have gained time to think, to process, to feel, to share. We would have lost the ability to play and replay ubiquitous videos of overcrowded hospitals and anxious mothers ranting about the stressors of homeschooling four children; we would have gained time to play with and talk to family, to unwind.

But it’s 2020. We are experiencing this pandemic through a digital prism, and the clock can’t be turned back. Nevertheless, this predigital thought experiment is instructive in several ways:

    1. The pace of technological change is stunning. In barely half a lifetime, new communications technologies have expanded our access to knowledge and networks, extended our reach and our grasp, and supercharged our progress and prospects.
    1. At the same time, our underlying human needs – to belong, to contemplate, to breathe, to commune – have fundamentally not changed. Though the technologies we use shape our sense of self no less than they transform our perception of reality, we ignore our nature at our peril.
    1. Living a connected life is a choice, not a fate. We can be – we must be – intentional, deciding when to connect digitally and when to disconnect. We have a responsibility to model our intentionality so that our children and our students will learn from it.

I do not long for a simpler, quieter time, or lament its loss. I remember its inefficiencies all too well. But I embrace the lessons the past teaches us of a healthy balance, not only in times of heightened crisis but in more settled and secure times, as well.


Dr. Steven Lorch is the Head of School of Kadima Day School in West Hills. He has been a head of school since 1979, during which time he has headed five other schools, one of which, the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan, he founded and led for 20 years. Formerly on the faculty of the Day School Leadership Training Institute and YU Lead, he has trained dozens of Jewish day school heads.  

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