coronavirus

My Covid-19 Story Part 2 – Back to School

Since the last time I wrote about my Covid-19 experience for Ungagged my life here in Xiamen (on the south coast of China) has regained a degree of normality. Initially many people were saying things like “normal isn’t really very normal any more”, and the expectation was that the strictly enforced new rules were here to stay.

Actually, as the virus has essentially been defeated here, things have mostly gone back to how they were before – almost. People in my city have stopped wearing masks most of the time, with the exceptions being on public transport and in some malls where they are still mandatory. Even the cinemas are open again, although with reduced capacity to allow people to continue social distancing if they wish.

The lesson from China is that the sooner you take the epidemic seriously and take decisive action against it (not the half hearted response we’ve seen from London) then the sooner things go back to normal.

I had been in Scotland during the earlier stages of the outbreak in China, but thankfully had managed to return before they closed the borders. Without sounding over dramatic – it has proved to be much safer here than back in Boris Johnson’s UK (despite what the media and the usual China-bashers had been saying at the start).

I know that the failures of the UK government have been well documented elsewhere, but with many people adamant that the schools should open again after the summer I thought I would give Ungagged readers a glimpse of how China has handled sending students back to school in the midst of an ongoing global pandemic. Being a primary school teacher here I have first hand experience to share.

The main thing to remember is that China didn’t send a single child back to school until the virus was being adequately managed. As the virus was brought under control sooner in some regions than in others it meant that the schools were opened in some cities while still closed in others. Whenever local outbreaks occurred, the schools in that locality were immediately closed again. While schools were closed lessons were conducted online. Crowded places like schools and colleges are easy locations for a virus to spread, so no risks were taken when deciding when they should reopen.

Anyway, I had knocked off for the Chinese New Year holiday at the start of January and had expected to be back at work sometime in the middle of February. It would actually be the first week of May before my school reopened.

When we did go back there were many new rules that we had to get used to, both for the teachers and for the children. Things were very strict – necessarily so. We weren’t allowed to leave the city (in case we ended up in a virus hot spot) and those who had been beyond the city limits had to quarantine for two weeks before being allowed back on the school premises. The daily commute meant going from home straight to school, and then vice versa at the end of the day. No stops at tea houses or noodle shops were allowed.

All teachers were also required to have a nucleic acid test. Every teacher at every school in the city had to take the test, and so the local government set up testing stations throughout the city and then the schools took turns sending bus loads of teachers to the closest one. The test itself basically involves a nurse swabbing the back of your throat. Not a pleasant experience, but not the worst thing a nurse will ever do to you either. The most difficult part for many is apparently trying not to vomit, but thankfully we all managed to keep our lunches down.

Back at school we tried to keep lessons as normal as possible, but this proved difficult. Things felt incredibly rushed as we condensed a review of what the students had been learning online and the remainder of the curriculum into about eight weeks of lessons.

The students had been away from school for four months and, especially for the younger ones, going back was a difficult transition to make. The first grade students had only completed one semester of school prior to the epidemic, and so hadn’t really grasped the structured environment of the school yet. With the amount of time they then spent at home during lock down they had just lost all sense of how to behave in a classroom. I really didn’t envy the first grade teachers, although they coped with the added challenges admirably.

For everyone there were new rules and procedures to adapt to. Upon arriving at school all students had to pass through a health check area with various “stations”. These stations included one where they had to use hand sanitiser and a final temperature check before entering the school building. Teachers were required to disinfect their classroom every day, and no parents were allowed on the school premises.

Masks were of course mandatory. I expect this rule to still be in place after the summer holiday. Face masks could come off during lunch time, but students had to provide their own cutlery. Meals were served on plastic trays from a third party caterer, who then collected the trays again and took them to be disinfected. Social distancing was also imposed as much as was possible. Markings on the corridor floors indicated the safe distance to be kept between students, while desks in classrooms were spaced out to the extent that they could be.

I’m sure every teacher encountered something they found challenging during this period. As it turned out I was the only foreign teacher at my school who had managed to return to China. The other two had gone home to the USA, and when the borders were closed they found themselves stuck there. It’s unlikely they’ll be back next semester either given the current situation with the virus in the States. As a result I had to take on extra classes to ensure that all the students got at least one English lesson a week. At this school they usually get six.

The extra workload was a challenge, but not as much as trying to teach a second language while wearing a face mask to students who are also all wearing face masks. I’m not complaining about wearing a mask, I totally agree that we should wear one, but it does make some things a bit more tricky. Trying to teach phonics and pronunciation when the students can’t see my mouth, and I can’t see theirs, is definitely a challenge.

From my experience here in China, the one piece of advice I would give to primary teachers in Scotland (when they eventually get back to school) is this: “be patient”. Everyone’s lives have been disrupted by this virus. The kids are currently missing out on so much – sports, social events and clubs. They have had their routines upended and when they get back into the classroom they will need to relearn all those classroom behaviours again. They will probably have to learn a whole lot of new rules and procedures as well if Scottish schools implement anti-virus measures such as those in China and elsewhere. This has been a strange time for all of us.

A teacher observes a student using hand sanitiser as he arrives at the school.

All students have their temperature checked and recorded before entering the school building.

Students learning the new procedures they should follow when they arrive at school.

Students arriving at school after passing through the health check area.

Social distance markings on the corridor floors.

As expected, children need constant reminders of the new rules. The social distancing rules are particularly difficult to enforce.

A teacher teaches her class about good hand washing and personal hygiene.

Face masks are mandatory most of the time in school.

Teachers are required to disinfect their classrooms every day.

By Beinn Irbhinn

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