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A grade 12 graduate beside his lawn sign

A grade 12 graduate beside his lawn sign

Gray Academy Has Been Exceptional During the Pandemic at teaching online with Gray Away- Gray Is Postponing Convocation Ceremony for Grade 12 Grads

by Rhonda Spivak, June 25, 2020

[Editor's note: This article will focus on the High school and the Graduating class of Gray Academy]


When the Province of Manitoba announced that, effective March 23, all schools in Manitoba were going to close for three weeks – with the possibility that the closure might be extended due to the coronavirus-Gray Academy acted quickly to move to online learning. Luckily, adjusting to this monumental change of taking a whole curriculum online came easily to Gray Academy, which took much of what had been done in the bricks and mortar school to create "Gray Away."


As Lori Binder, Head of School and CEO of Gray Academy told the Winnipeg Jewish Review, "Innovation and Technology have been our friends." She praised her "amazing" staff who "have shown that school isn't about bricks and mortar" but rather "schools are about relationships and community.” She added that "Our Teachers have really put a lot of love into caring for their students." Binder says things have been going "incredibly well" and "feedback has been very helpful in creating our Gray Away infrastructure."


Tracy White, Principal of the High School, explained in an email that Gray Away is based on six guiding principals: 

 1.       Balance – The program incorporates the same learning spaces/opportunities found in the physical school and balances the schedule between them. This includes direct lessons, online collaborations, “offline” working sessions, one-on-one time with the teacher as well as accessibility outside of class hours

 2.   Proper Tools and Skill Sets – The program provides instruction and practice time for students to learn to effectively using new and familiar online tools  

 3.      Learning Opportunities - the program focuses on literacy and numeracy, and continues to have students read books, write on paper, create art and crafts, apply mental math skills and engage in deep thinking questions and discussions at home. 

 4.      Mental Health - the program ensures moments of mindfulness and activities that promote a healthy mindset.  

 5.      Physical Health - the program includes a focus on physical health and fitness of students in the daily schedule and recommendations for home. 

 6.      Spiritual Well-being - we are a Jewish school and we must continue to support the spiritual aspects of the school’s programming.


White noted that "Our goal was to keep as much routine and normalcy as we could for our students. We based all of our decisions on brain research and our experience and expertise in working with young people. High school schedules differed from elementary schedules, even the start and end time of day was different. For example, in high school, students started around 10:00 am and their classes were 1 hour in length (with the exception of Hebrew language, which was done in 15-minute blocks daily). With two classes in the morning and two to three in the afternoon, and an hour for lunch, our program was very robust. We knew that maintaining momentum would be difficult as the novelty of online learning waned. We kept the engagement going because students saw their teachers live every day, with one-third of the time spent on new instruction and two-thirds of the time spent working on assignments, with the teachers available live, just like in a regular classroom. The time of day was chosen as we understand that mornings are not always optimal for teens. One afternoon in each cycle there were no scheduled classes – it was time for some one-on-one support or small group support or just a break from being on the computer for some children."


White stated, "I am happy to report that we routinely had 100% attendance in our live classes. We were fortunate in that our students were already very familiar with Google Classroom, which became our main platform for the sharing of lessons and submission of completed work. There was no learning curve in that regard."


Binder pointed out that the school "created advisory groups" for high school, and every teacher was responsible for calling a certain number of students to see how they were, and to see if students needed support. "We were able to give one-on-one attention --- over the phone or over the computer --- when needed, and we were able to connect with families as well," Binder said. 


White noted "We had a variety of guest speakers (some specifically on Covid-19, on parenting and others directed more to the students), we had virtual visits (including our past madrichim from New York, who worked with our grade 10 – 12s at their Retreat back in January), and had a live Kabbalat Shabbat almost every Friday. Our anthems and announcements are live every morning, and we continued with our student assemblies for Jewish holidays and special events. During Passover break we recognized the need for some programming for students and families. We had a magician, a dance party, virtual grade lunches with teachers, directed art activities, a pet parade – all done live over Zoom. It was important that we remained connected with our students on non-Yom Tov days over the break."


Binder added that "Student council had a spirit week" and "We even figured out a way to do a virtual Reach for the Top."


High school ended on Friday June 12, with the following week being exams. As Binder explains, "The staff met and made a decision that all students would do a virtual math exam and that our students in biology and chemistry would have exams that could be written at school or at home. For other courses, students have other kinds of assessments  


Binder outlined how the school has tried to make graduation special for the graduating grade 12 class, which has 23 students. On Friday, June 12, the school held an outdoor Kabbalat Shabbat and dinner for the graduating class, and teachers, with Rabbi Kliel Rose and Cantor Tracey Kasner. It was a good option, given the maximum number of people allowed is 50, outside with social distancing in place. "We were so glad we were able to have this event for our grads," Binder said.


She added that Gray Academy has made the decision to hold off on its grade 12 graduation convocation ceremony. "We hope we'll be able to have a larger outdoor gathering later on or possibly an indoor gathering, as the restrictions due to the coronavirus ease up. We will wait until the fall or sometime thereafter."


"In the meantime, on the night that was supposed to be grad dinner and dance, we did a Zoom L'chaim with parents and students. Parent volunteers delivered a grad cap and a rose to each student," Binder noted. In early May, staff surprised each graduating grade 12 student by delivering customized lawn signs to each student’s home. We also had a beautiful video made, featuring a slide show of grad photos, pictures of the student when they were young and photos with their lawn signs." This grad video can be seen at


Joan and  Seth Marks are parents who have a child in High School at Gray Academy and also have a child graduating from grade 12 this year. They wrote to the Winnipeg Jewish Review in an email that "Overall, our experience with Gray Away has been very positive. We feel that the Gray Academy responded very quickly to the need for virtual learning...The program essentially kept the kids occupied with school all day. We feel this was important both for their learning but also for their overall well being during the pandemic i.e. they were kept busy. We are very satisfied that our children’s education continued to the end of the school year... Our children adapted well to the change with the assistance and availability of the teachers and their often individual attention. We know, anecdotally at least by talking to friends and colleagues, that the virtual learning program developed by Gray is above and beyond what other schools have been able to offer."


Joan and Seth Marks said they are "proud" their child is graduating from Gray Academy and they "would recommend it to other families." As they said, "We feel the double curriculum provides an extra challenge that will serve our children well in the ability to balance future workload whether at university or in the future. We feel it is important that our children receive a Jewish Education. We believe the factual Jewish knowledge, Hebrew language skills, and community awareness they gained are all very important. In addition, we think some Judaic courses ( e.g., Jewish Law) not only provide factual knowledge, some  of which may admittedly be of questionable significance in modern life, but also provide an ability to develop skills such as comprehension and logic. Most importantly, our child is proud to be graduating from Gray Academy."    


Joan and Seth note that "Graduation has obviously not been as expected and has therefore been somewhat unsettling for our child and us. Yet, Gray has done certain things to make it better given the circumstances. The lawn signs and “drive by” done by the teachers and administration were wonderful. We will keep the sign as a memory...The recent Friday night Shabbat dinner for the grads was also special and allowed our child to receive his traditional graduation kippah. Of course, none of this is like we or our child wanted or expected, but given the circumstances we think they have done some nice things to make the grad feel acknowledged. We await to hear what the steps are for convocation and perhaps other celebrations such as a dinner dance."


Liat Schultz, who is a grade 12 graduate from Gray Academy wrote to the Winnipeg Jewish Review in an email that she had a positive experience with Gray Away learning on line. "Having been launched in only two days, I found that Gray Away online learning providing an enriched learning experience for all students. The teachers were incredibly supportive and made the transition seamless," she said. She added, "I am so proud to be graduating from Gray Academy. It was an experience like no other and one that I will cherish for the rest of my life." 


She said that Gray Academy took steps to make her graduation special, notwithstanding the coronavirus pandemic. "On our last day of school, teachers and administrators drove to the houses of each graduate with lawn signs, gift bags, and lots of honking. They also placed a beautiful sign outside of the school on Tuxedo Ave. celebrating the class of 2020. We also celebrated virtually with a video montage highlighting each graduate, a Zoom toast, and a school wide assembly where we displayed the items that will be going in the time capsule. We celebrated a lovely Shabbat dinner this past Friday [June 12] outside of the school where each graduate was given a personalized kippah in honour of our graduation. We celebrated from a distance with students, staff, and administration. We have not yet set a date for our convocation, but we look forward to coming together again soon!"


Jasmine Epstein, a grade 11 student at Gray Academy, wrote to the Winnipeg Jewish Review in an email that she has been "overall very satisfied with my experience" with Gray Away.  "All of the teachers adapted really well and really fast to making the rest of their curriculum online and it had a great impact on the students during times like these." 


She added, " I liked being able to reach teachers for extra help whenever needed. Then being at home all the time, really helped me be able to reach out over an email and quickly set a time to meet. It’s helped me be able to take some time to myself and learn what subjects I really enjoy doing which is convenient for me since I have to apply for university in the fall."

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.