In my recent blogs I haven’t mentioned much about COVID-19, the reason behind our wanderings, so I thought that as the world grapples now with the pandemic, I should pen some personal reflections on our own journey which began back in late January and was kick started by the Corona Virus.
It was Monday January 20th when I first heard about a new virus which was causing trouble in Wuhan. My trusty team of library assistants were hearing the news and passed bits on to me. It seemed to be very localised at that stage. However, by Wednesday of that week we heard that Wuhan was in lockdown and Helen appeared at my desk with a mask saying that they were getting hard to obtain and I should wear it.
It was always going to be a weird start to the year as we had only been back at school for two and a half weeks before we broke up for the Chinese New Year holiday. It was one of those years when the feasts occurred very close together. On Thursday 23rd we dressed in red or our Chinese clothes. I was excited to wear my new robes and to celebrate this great festival for the first time actually in China.
This was the first point at which the virus caused a disruption to me personally and really registered on my radar. Our whole school assembly scheduled for mid-morning was cancelled. The Shanghai Municipal authority had banned all non-essential gatherings. This was a shame as I had been looking forwards to it but the dragons danced through the school corridors instead.
Given the short start to the term, some families had not returned from the Christmas holidays and some had departed early for Chinese New Year, so classes were depleted all that week but especially that day. Some wanted to be sure that they reached their familes for the festival so had left early before the travel bans came into force.
My team and I went to celebrate that day with a traditional Hot Pot and much discussion ensued about the fact that in Wuhan shelves in the supermarkets were emptying as people were panic buying. This was the first time I really realised that the virus was serious. I had one or two messages from friends asking if I was alright but it did all seem quite far away from Shanghai. It felt like a Wuhan problem really with the rest of the country taking precautions.
At this meal I heard my first panic story from the crisis. Apparently a Chinese student from Wuhan was experiencing a fever so she took paracetamol to lower her temperature and boarded a flight to France. She evaded the airport screening and then posted gleefully on Chinese social media that she had escaped. There was a pretty awful backlash against her for doing that and she went into hiding as the French authorities tried to track her down. Looking back, the social irresponsibiity started then. I sometimes wonder what became of her.
We were due to fly out of Shanghai on our holiday on Thursday 24th and were advised to wear the masks at all times, even on the plane, and to arrive at Pudong airport an hour early as there were strict health screening measures in place which would add time to our departure. Shanghai was closing down as people were asked to stay at home and we were worried that we would have difficulty in getting a taxi but that was unfounded. At this stage the authorities had closed cinemas, Chinese New Year events and all public gatherings.
We needn’t have bothered arriving so early as Pudong was empty. We breezed through the health screening as there were so few people around. In this picture Kevin has to remove his mask before going through the thermal imaging section, but you can see how deserted the airport is. Normally is is heaving. I wondered if most locals had heeded the government advice and were not travelling to relatives.
Our flight to Brunei was full though, mostly with Chinese, and everyone wore their masks for the whole flight. I don’t like masks much, not just because they are hot and uncomfortable but because I can’t hear people when I can’t see their lips move and I have so much clutter behind my ears that there isn’t much room for mask strings. Still needs must and I wore it. We did all take them off to eat the dinner though so I guess any viruses could have been communicated then…
Once at our friend Gillian’s house news started to come in almost immediately that the school was going to be closed for two weeks but that staff were expected back as per normal . Every day we heard bits and pieces from friends and colleagues about how their schools were dealing with this situation and how staff in other schools were not going straight back. I have to say that Concordia were great and have been extremely supportive during this crisis. They have communicated efficiently and repeatedly so I have always felt well informed by them. Communication like this is so very important during unfolding situations. Often they were contacting us to say that there was no fresh news, but that was ok. I knew that they were there if I needed to talk to someone. Interestingly the infectious diseases part of the school Emergency Plan assumed that everyone would be in Shanghai during an outbreak; they had not envisioned a situation where we would all be on holiday around the globe.
It was when we arrived in Bangkok on Tuesday 28th that more plans went awry. That very day Thai International schools banned anyone who had been in China since 22nd Jan from entering campus. That was us, so all hopes of visiting the newly refurbished library at Shrewsbury were dashed. I did meet up with colleagues who were willing to see me and I understood that some did not feel comfortable. Some families who had been in China recently were asked to self isolate for 14 days and there was some disgruntlement that these people were getting two weeks off work/School!
By Thursday 30th we knew that we were going to be away from school for two weeks. It felt a little surreal, like we would be working on vacation. I wanted to give our school community access to the databases login information and was struggling to access everything I needed from my phone. It was just too little. Fat finger syndrome reigned supreme and not all my messages made sense! Autocorrect made some interesting changes… So we bought a cheap laptop which did help (note the camera broke within a week which wasn’t much help) and although it had Thai script on the keyboard it was in pretty constant use for the next 2 months.
I was asked by the school to provide online stories each week so that the children would still have their library story in an effort to provide some semblence of normality in these unusual circumstances. And so began my initation into the world of media. It has been quite a journey. I was grateful to my friend Susan Grigsby, librarian at Wellington School in Bangkok, for bringing me a selection of picture books to read. I managed to record me reading about 9 stories on my phone with Kevin’s help. However, the files were large so I had to learn how to compress them, upload them to my drop box , install my drop box on my PC and move the files to the school video site. It was important that these were viewed only by the school community so that I didn’t breach copyright laws. Then I had to create permalinks so that I could share them. It wasn’t easy: Not easy at all. I found some good quality stories online but my biggest problem was that several formats e.g. Google and You Tube simply didn’t work in China. This was hugely frustrating.
In any other online or distance learning programmes that I have been involved with there was an extensive planning process. Time to produce and refine materials and assessments etc. Not so this time. It was a case of “Please do Home Based Learning next week!’. What has been produced by all involved is frankly AMAZING at such short notice. Teachers have had an enormous task and they have risen to the challenge with good grace and fortitude. It was a tremendous challenge especially for the familes who were suddenly thrown into learning at home, some children in hotel rooms, with little or no resources at hand.
People asked me ‘What did you do, with no library?’ Well, I thought that initially but in actual fact there has been plenty to do remotely. I supported teachers by finding resources in our 24 online databases for their units of study. Things that they might not have known we had access to. Some teachers have had to redesign material using what we had available so I have worked with them on that. I grappled with login and access issues from parents and children. I bought additional eBooks and audio books for our online platform to ensure that children could still access books and I did an analysis of usage of our eResources. Every week I produced or found 7 different online stories. More recently I discovered power point movies and created story times using pictures of pages and a small video of me reading. I have learned SO MUCH about media technology. All things which I was vaguely aware of but was not in anyway a competent practitioner. One thing that I can say is that producing a short video clip takes an enormous amount of time. Way more than I ever appreciated. I saw one estimate that a 10 minute clip can take up to 6 hours to produce. That puts all this work into context.
School tech support have been helpful but they were often in different time zones so I have been forced to become a lot more self reliant. I have taught myself so much that my head aches thinking about it but that just added another layer of stress to the working day. I do feel a certain sense of achievement at the end of mastering a new skill on my own though. There have been times, I admit when things technical did not go my way. I remember one day trying to record a screen cast to make a tutorial of how to log in to one of our databases when it went wrong so many times that I just wanted to throw all my devices at the wall and scream at them. That was a really low point. One problem was that ALL of the work had been carried out using screens and most times this has been done from hotel beds, chairs in the lobby or on the balcony and my posture has not been great. This was online learning on the road. It was rough and ready. The important thing I learned was to take regular breaks.
There have been times when families have really struggled to access resources, teachers become frazzled with adapting to the new way of teaching and the road ahead of Home Based Learning stretched out ever longer as return to school dates have been extended again and again. We are all out of our comfort zones; all grappling with time differences as our students and staff are scattered across the globe. We had no warning, unlike the rest of the world. We just had to get on and do it. So, whilst I see people on facebook and Twitter now bemoaning their social distancing and lock downs, I think that in some ways they are lucky. They could see it coming and prepare. We were simply caught on the hoof and doing the very best that we could with limited or no resources. It is wonderful now to see so many publishers, museums and authors opening up their resources and creating access but in the beginning for me, that wasn’t there. We were the first to try and cope.
Having said all that, technology really is wonderful. The fact that we have been able to manage at all during this time is down to the wonders of modern communications. I could talk to my team on WeChat, send messages and engage in conference calls from anywhere in the world. Home-Based learning can be flexible which means that you can nip out for a coffee whenever you want but that very flexibility can become a curse when lessons are happening at a time which is your early morning or late evening and you need to be available to respond. For the conscientious it can become a 24/7 job. I remember joining one Zoom call at 11pm and it lasted until 01.15 which meant that I was a very bleary eyed participant. The lack of structure in one’s day can be a blessing but it also creates a situation when you can easily burn out. It’s actually quite hard to stop.
And so Kevin and I roamed the countries around the Indian Ocean, never certain what was going to happen next. Always keeping a close eye on the news channels, news from friends and colleagues in China and trying to sift rumours from facts. We moved on as visas expired or hotels became too expensive. In reality we were fortunate, we had sufficient funds to be ‘hotel hobos’. We sourced cheaper eating locations as time wore on, hand washed our weeks’ supply of clothing regularly but we realised that we were privileged to be able to enjoy a late afternoon dip in the pool or walk by the sea in beautiful locations. It was all doable (just) even if the wifi wasn’t always as stable as I needed.
We worked and watched as the virus moved steadily across the continents. We were living the reailty of what disruption to lives this disease could bring and we knew friends who were suffering long weeks of isolation in cramped spaces in Shanghai but I got the distinct feeling that it was all just a news bulletin from a remote place to many back in the UK. People in the West didn’t think that it would affect them in any way. It was all an ‘Asian problem’.
We were lucky, we ran ahead of the virus and knew that we had passed unscathed through our incubation period so we were pretty confident that we were not infected. We kept ourselves to ourselves and tried not to mingle too much, although often the hotels and streets were empty as the tourist trade was slow anyway. But after 6 weeks of this lifestyle we began to tire of living out of a suitcase and we reached a point when we had to decide what to do next. We didn’t fancy returning home to Shanghai, to what was then still a hot spot of the virus. We tried Australia as that would have been in the same time zone for Home Based Learning and so ideal, but they didn’t reply to our visa application (we learned later that they stopped letting any visitors in). So there was only one thing for it, it was back to Blightly, via Oman for some last rays of sunshine.
I was a bit worried as we had a suitcase full of flip flops and summer stuff none of which was in the slightest way suitable for the storm-ridden UK. We purchased a few emergency items in Oman for wearing on the plane as we knew that we had to take the train from Manchester to Lancaster so it was going to be cold! Once at home we hit the charity shops and managed wearing just a few recycled items for the time that we were back. It wasn’t something we had anticapated when we packed for our Chinese New Year break. If I had known that we were going to be away for months I would have packed more batteries, my fitbit charger and some socks! On the whole though, considering what was happening we managed very well and were able to stock up on toiletries and other items as needed.
We also hadn’t packed our driving licences and one learning point from all this has been that we will have photographs of ALL our important documents on our phones just in case, because you never know what is going to happen around the next corner!!
Being back in the UK was great and it was wonderful to see family and friends but the time differences for me got more exaggerated. At this stage some 75% of our school families were back in Shanghai but only 25% of the staff. No one else was in the UK which meant that I always had to fit around everyone else.
During this time the number of cases in Europe and the US steadily increased whilst life appeared to be returning to normal in Shanghai. On the same day I heard that Disney was re-opening and Boris Johnson declared that he wanted to create ‘Herd Immunity” in Britain. This was a major factor in my decision to return to China. I felt fit and well but couldn’t take the risk of becoming infected and not allowed back when school reopened. Concordia was just waiting for the government to give it a date and it could be any time. In the meantime Oliver and Steph got engaged and I really wanted to be home for their engagement party. COVID-19 had other ideas though and it was not to be. In the short space of a week the situation escalated so rapidly that the party was cancelled, Oliver, Steph and Inigo were self isolating and my flight back via Bangkok was suddenly impossible when the Thai authorities required a health declaration signed by a doctor saying that you had been tested as negative in the last 48 hours before you could even transit through the country. This was impossible to obtain in the UK as they didn’t even have enough test kits for the suspected cases never mind travellers.
Kevin sat at the keyboard and steamed through airline websites as one flight after another was cancelled or prices became astronomical; all while constantly checking embassy websites to find which airports were still accepting UK passengers. His diligence paid off though and he found a flight for the next day through Japan Airlines transiting in Helsinki and Osaka (interestingly none of the aircraft we flew on were Japan Airlines aircraft). The cost was more than we would normally consider but it would be worth it to be able to return. The last leg however, Osaka to Shanghai, was unconfirmed so there was a huge risk that I could arrive in Japan and find no onward flight available; so Kevin, who was originally going to stay in the UK to keep mother company, decided to come with me. I was hugely relieved as this was going to be a stressful experience at the best of times. School had already told us that China was putting all returners through a 14 day self-isolation. On the day we booked our tickets the UK was upgraded to a Category 1 country and this meant that we were facing quarantine instead.
It was a mad dash that Friday to buy the airline tickets, pack and do some last minute jobs for mother, return our borrowed car and jump on a train to Euston with three suitcases and multiple small bags. The journey across London was surreal as the evening rush hour platforms at King’s Cross looked the emptiest I had ever seen them.
The next day we were up at 6am to get to Heathrow which wasn’t as quiet as I had been expecting after the deserted Underground system! We got boarding passes for 2 /3 legs. First one to Helsinki went smoothly (3hours) then a 2.5 hour wait. It was so weird to see snow on the ground outside when we had set off at the beginning of all this in tropical climes.
The 2nd leg was 8 hours and to my surprise there were several Asian people on board in full on home-made protection. It was hot on the aircraft so they must have been roasting in all that plastic!!! This guy sat in front of me on the plane in his bin liner.
Once we landed in Osaka, we realised that the majority of flights departing that day had been cancelled. It was quite a scary moment as we scanned the departure boards for our flight and the relief when we saw that it was still on schedule was immense.
We had completed Japanese Health declaration forms on the plane and then queued for an hour to have them scrutinized (twice). Then we walked through thermal cameras one at a time as though they were the security gates. It was so ironic that I had been worried about having a hot flush at the wrong time during this process but it was Kevin who was singled out for an extra forehead temperature check. He had his sweatshirt on & a mask which is why. How those people wrapped in plastic managed I don’t know…
Then we were checked against a passenger list and marched together to the departure gate. Several of us needed boarding passes which they provided for us at the gate. Most other passengers seem to be Chinese students, perhaps thinking that China was safer now than Europe or perhaps escaping the growing racial abuse that seems to be fermenting as the stark realities of this epidemic sunk in at home. The airport was eerily quiet and reminded me of a scene from the Langoliers, long empty corridors, closed retail outlets and lonely departure lounges.
Health screening was extremely strict, we had our temperatures taken in the departure lounge then again once we were in the air by cabin crew. Next was a complex & thorough Chinese health declaration form to complete. Both of us had stuffy noses on the previous flight but had to declare it (or risk 3 years in prison.)
We landed at 15:45 and settled in for a wait. Customs officials boarded the plane in full hazmat suits and we waited to be called. At 16:00 the 1st group was called to disembark. After an hour (approx) we were allowed to leave. We queued to have forms photocopied & walk again through the thermal scanner. Because we ticked stuffy nose we were hived off for thermometer under arm & questions about the symptoms. Fortunately, we managed to convince them that it was due to cabin air pressure. They believed us. Phew.
More queuing and scanning and immigration. The airport was awash with staff all fully clad and protected. Clearly the Chinese were throwing massive resources at this operation. Our passport & visa and boarding pass were photocopied several times. The normal routes through fingerprints were cordoned off and new routes marked with staff to direct and assist at every point.
Finally in the police section we found a sign for our area of Shanghai; Pudong New Area (not Jinqiao that we had been looking for!). We had to download a Shanghai health app on our phones that showed a personal QR code; ours were coloured orange. By now it was 7pm and we were taken about 30 mins away with approx a dozen others. Half an hour later we arrived at a hotel and unloaded. We queued up under brightly coloured poly tunnels and processed through several registration stations. We gave our passports, boarding passes, flight number and seat numbers yet again. The staff were friendly and helpful though and could see that we were all tired. We were asked to sign documents which basically said that we agreed to comply with medical procedures and faced up to 3 years in prison if we failed to comply. It was hard for me to hear everything through the masks and face shields. I was so glad that Kevin was there and I wasn’t struggling to do this alone.
Then we were swabbed at the back of our throats in an uncomfortable but mercifully brief process.
By 8pm we were escorted into the hotel and checked into our rooms. We were told that we would be separated until the results came back. Our rooms were ok but in my case it obviously had not been cleaned for several occupants. The carpet was filthy and there were hairs in the sink. We had clean sheets though but had to make our own beds.
In the bathroom was a shower but only a small hand towel. We had been traveling for 29 hours and desperate for a hot shower. It was bliss and possibly one of the best showers I have ever had although patting down with something not much bigger than a flannel wasn’t great – but I was too tired to care.
We had been told that previous arrivals had not been given water to drink and instead told to boil water in the kettle but we were lucky and found a small bottle in our food package in the room. I also had some sweet buns filled with red bean paste; Kevin had a pot noodle.
On the plus side it was an extremely comfortable bed and I was glad to be able to lie down after 29 hours of power naps in airplane seats.
The next morning we were up and ready to be called at any time but nothing happened. Breakfast arrived. A boiled egg, two steamed buns filled with some strange stuff and another bottle of water. I would have killed to have had a cup of tea or coffee.
I was able to talk to Kevin, contact school and read the news on my phone. I wasn’t comfortable being on my own primarily as I was dreading not being able to hear a knock at the door or a phone call if I was sleeping or without my hearing aids. Lunch arrived but I guess I was too nervous to eat much. I dozed fitfully and read a little. From my window I could see down to the courtyard where all the testing happens, It was a little disconcerting to see that there were locked gates and guards at the entrance. I know that this was a medical emergency and I was there voluntarily but it did feel a little like being a prisoner.
It was 1.30 in the afternoon before the call came through that our text restults were negative. It was such a relief as you never know when or where you might pick this virus up. We had wiped all the surfaces on the airplane seats but you just never know… so this was good news. I checked our QR code and it had turned green! They said to wait for the bus. So I packed ready to go at a moment’s notice but it was another 5 hours before they called us.
We were herded downstairs and told to wait under the poly tunnels. There must have been about 50 of us. No social distancing this time. I guess we had all tested negative so felt ok. We waited as small groups were called forwards and put onto coaches and mini buses. It was a slow process. It was dark. It got cold. It must have been 8pm before we were called forwards in a group largely made up of Germans. We boarded a regular bus with two hazmats to help lift the cases. Every window was open and we were instructed not to close them. It was perishing cold as we drove down the highway with the March night air screaming through. Apparently the Chinese think that good ventilation is important. I was frozen.
The stops to decant people took FOREVER as the hazmats helped them to sign forms, photocopy passports and take temperatures yet again at each drop off point. And would you believe it we were the last ones off. It was gone 9pm before we reached Phoenix Mansions. The whole process took 29 hours from the time the plane touched down to arriving at our apartment, I have never been so glad to fall into bed.
Our apartment manager, Shero was amazing and had bought us some starter groceries so we could have a cup of tea and some toast. Bliss.
And so our quarantine began.
The next afternoon we were visited by the Doctor + 2 assistants + policeman at 2pm and asked to sign more documents saying that we understood the terms of our quarantine. We were not allowed to set foot over the threshold. We had to put all rubbish outside the door before 9am and it would be collected. We were given disinfectant and hand sanitizer and a thermometer, masks and a special yellow hazardous waste binbag (in case we developed the virus we should put all rubbish out in that.) Shopping is done online and the guards bring the delivery to our door, knock and leg it quickly.
Every day we are required to take our temperature at 9am and 2pm and submit the readings to the Doctor via WeChat on our phones. It provides a structure to our days. On the whole though we are enjoying the peace and quiet. We have been sleeping an average of 12 hours each day and I don’t think that we realised how exhausting the travelling and worrying was never mind the stressful airport testing. We are reading and cooking and stitching, watching Netflix and resting, catching up with laundry and enjoying having our own things in our own space again. Our friends and colleagues here have been in touch to celebrate (virtually) and we are hoping that school will open again sometime in April. It is Spring Break this week and I am truly thankful not to be sitting at a screen (except to write this) I needed a break.
We can’t quite believe that once again we have stayed ahead of the virus. This isn’t the end of the journey I’m sure, but so far so good.