Coping with School Closures. My Experience of Covid-19

The Covid-19 virus (also commonly identified as simply the “coronavirus”) has been officially declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization. While not referring to its severity, the word “pandemic” does indicate that the spread of the disease has been catastrophically wide and fast.

One of the hardest-hit sectors from the beginning of the crisis has been education. As an educator and school administrator in mainland China, I’ve felt the sting of Covid-19 from early on — January 26th to be precise. It started as a rumble from down south; a new troubling disease that was spreading. No one paid it much attention until the greatest global human migration took place in the final weeks of January, as millions of Chinese departed their workplaces to head to their hometowns for the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) celebration.

Schools in my home base of Shandong Province we confirmed closed by early February as it became apparent that strict measures were needed. This included private training centres like ours, as well as public schools. Ours is the kind of school that kids visit on evenings and weekends.

As teachers and administrators, we had to act quickly. We’d never offered formal online teaching before, and we didn’t even have a viable platform to use:

  • WeChat, our common communication tool (similar to WhatsApp) only allows a maximum of 9 people on a conference call and has no means for displaying materials
  • Google software is out because you need a VPN to run it in China and the Internet is often too slow to sustain video conference using foreign software
  • Skype is notoriously unreliable and seems for me in China to have never improved on call quality since I started using it to call home back in 2007

What did we do?

In a difficult situation, my team came up with FutureCloud, a teaching platform based in China. It allows us to conduct classes for up to 16 students (our typical class size is 8-10), display PPTs, PDFs, MP4 videos and other teaching materials. There’s also screen sharing, timers, laser pointer, free draw and underline…the list goes on. It’s a nifty and user-friendly platform.

We transferred our planned timetable to the online platform, and from January 31st, just five days after quarantine and mega restrictions set in, we were teaching online. We had to be mindful that our kids’ fervent public-school teachers, known for their strict rules and mountains of homework assignments, were continuing to pile on the work for the kids. We had to adapt our schedules not to overload them with extra assignments.

In my public forum debate class, for instance, I spaced out the classes with a free-day gap in between to give students time to write their debate speeches, do research and reflect on previous debates.

What have we learned from the time of school closures?

I would say there have been three big lessons we have learned during this trying time:

  1. Online teaching, though innovative, instant and convenient, cannot entirely yet fully replace the classroom experience.
  2. Great strides have been made in the concept, and this period has shown us the many benefits of online teaching as a viable alternative.
  3. Co-ordinating a team is harder online than when you are in an office together, but not impossible and, again, made easier thanks to great strides in online technology.

In short, many organisations in China are now seeing the enormous potential of online learning, having somewhat shunned it in the past as “lesser.” Many parents now express interest in continuing online classes with centres like ours, if only to cut out the troublesome fight through evening traffic to get to our classrooms!

What advice do I have for other teachers facing school closures?

As Covid-19 stretches its tendrils into Europe, the Americas and Oceania, I have several pieces of advice for teachers.

1. Remain calm and act normal

Teachers are part of a fabric of respected authority figures in society. When teachers act rationally, students will tend to follow suit. Therefore, as a teacher, you should project calmness, stoicism and positivity. This disease is no joke, but it’s not Armageddon. Conduct your classes without Covid hysteria; discourage students from sharing or believing online rumours, and remind them that as it is passing in China, so too will it pass elsewhere.

2. Keep food at home, and worry less about toilet paper

To help you stay isolated, keep a good stock (2-4 weeks’ worth) of canned and non-perishable food at home. Living in the UK means you can drink the tap water, leaving you more room in the shopping for other items. In China, we have to buy in all our water, too! Don’t panic buy (especially toilet paper) because it just harms the community and spreads fear.

3. Please encourage students to wash their hands and keep busy

Remind your students to wash their hands. I have started my debate classes by asking students to go and wash their hands before we even get started on the material. You can also remind them to clean their keyboards. My students in China have been kept sane by being occupied with productive tasks like studying, music, reading and cooking. Encourage your students to do the same.

4. Isolation and school closure seem extreme, but they work

Each day I wake up, and the first thing I do is check the latest Covid-19 statistics. Do you know what I see each day? I see the number of active cases going down by more than 1,000 per day because people have embraced these measures, cumbersome though they are, and they are now paying off.

Here’s the fact, straight from the horse-in-China’s mouth, isolation and school closures are a good public health measure. Swallow your pride, set aside the other worries about exams and paperwork, and focus on taking the steps we need to take to slow the progress of this troubling disease. 

Be a teacher; be a symbol of stoicism and steadfastness; be the example your students should follow.