Back to school: It’s normal, Jim, but not as we know it.

Wednesday 7th May 2020 was the date that our school was allowed by the government education authorities to resume on campus learning after leaving the premises for our 10 day Chinese New Year holidays on 23rd January. Like the rest of the world we have been in a Home Based Learning Program but ours is about to start its 14th week. This is considerably longer than other countries and the challenges for us are that:

  1. Our teaching staff and 1/4 of our students are spread around the world in multiple time zones.
  2. We had no warning so many teachers are without their resources.
  3. Teachers are exhausted having to learn new technologies on the hoof and instantly convert all their material into digital formats. People generally don’t realise, but I can testify from my personal experience, that to produce a 10 minute piece of video content can take anything up to 6 hours to prepare. This is no mean undertaking I assure you.
  4. Engagement with the provided online content has been patchy. Some children are self motivated and took to it all like ducks to water; some pick and choose what they want to do and others have either chosen not to engage or been unble to access the technology depending on where they are.
  5. Children and staff are all missing each other. Very much.
  6. In common with other countries around the world there is considerable pressure and desire to resume face to face instruction.

But returning to school is NOT a return to how it used to be. We are in a brave new world now with a ‘new normal’. China is one of the first countries to experience this so for those of you not here, this blog outlines how it all went from my perspective:

Our return to campus was eagerly anticipated and long awaited particularly as local Chinese schools were given priority by the government who instituted a staggered return province by province, city by city, area by area. Although we felt that we were ready we simply had to wait for our turn. During the waiting period Admin and Operations staff were extremely busy as all the International Schools in our area were required to pass a grueling three stage inspection.

The government made certain stipulations mandatory for schools and as far as I am aware these changed frequently! Our HR were brilliant at liaising with the relevant authorities and monitoring the ever changing situation. It was not easy from what I can gather. The stipulations included:

  1. A thorough deep clean of the whole campus.
  2. Installation of additional handwashing stations by the entrance.
  3. A controlled entry procedure at the gate including temperature testing
  4. Installation of a portacabin to be used as an isolation unit in the event of anyone becoming unwell during the school day
  5. Procedures in place for dealing with anyone who becomes unwell e.g. isolation/contact of parents/transfer to hospital in private transport
  6. Production of training material for all returning students and staff on revised procedures
  7. Social distancing in classrooms
  8. Student spaces to be disinfected before new pupils enter and a gap of 40 minutes between student groups (which effectively limits mobility between classrooms)
  9. Closure of spaces where people congregate e.g. libraries
  10. Controlled lunchtime procedures
  11. Masks to be worn by everyone all day
  12. No bicycles or scooters are allowed on campus
  13. No parents or visitors on campus
  14. Provision of hand sanitizer everywhere

There may well be more that I am not aware of but these are the basics.

Return was for grades 11 and 12 initially (Years 12 & 13 in UK speak or sixth form for those not in education). And only those who have passed the government health checks.

The following Wednesday Grade 9 and 10 resume, then after another week 7 and 8, finally on 25th May grades 4, 5 and 6 will come back. As our term ends on 10th June the younger ones will not be back this academic year. The government has taken the tough decision that they are too young to understand social distancing and they touch everything too often, particularly the 3-6 year olds!

As a number of our students and some of our teaching staff are still abroad the approach has to be one of blended learning for those year groups who can return. This means that the ‘teaching’ will still be provided by the specialists via online materials and those who are on site will do supervision.

One important point to note is that all the children have the OPTION of returning to school or staying at home and continuing with home based learning from there. As far as the older ones go there has been a good take up as many will be leaving soon but for those in the High School (the 15-16 year olds) numbers who want to return are changing especially now that they are realising what is involved. But really what would you do? For many the attraction of returning to school was the social element but that is no longer what it used to be.

Spaces are being used differently on campus e.g. the library which has had the shelves pushed back and tables installed. Every hour there has been a supervised lesson and the study hall with even greater spacing. It is going to be difficult to maintain the distances once the other students return.

In the dining facilities there are 1 m lines marked out for the queues. Previously there was a good selection of food but this has been reduced to a boxed meal and the choice is either the meat or the veg option and all the cutlery and serviettes are pre-bagged.

The timetable for the day has been re-worked to provide more opportunities for supervised handwashing and controlled access for smaller groups to the playground. Even the lifts have a plastic covering over all the buttons which is replaced each day.

Entry to the campus is very strictly controlled. Only people who have been cleared by the school heath office are permitted to enter and even then I had to provide 4 separate pieces of documentation prior to arrival.

  1. A health declaration form
  2. Proof of the government health tracker showing that I had a green status
  3. Proof that I had cleared quarantine
  4. A signed letter of commitment that I would abide by the new regulations on campus

Each day I now need to log into a School/government website and input my temperature and sign (electronically) to say that I am not displaying any symptoms. This has to be completed every day before 8am including the weekends!

Also if you have a cough caused by an allergy any other condition you have to prove that by showing a signed medical certificate.

Then we have our temperature checked and then we wash our hands. Throughout the school there are thermal imaging checkpoints too.

From the library point of view we are setting up a book drop box at the back gate where families, especially those not coming back at all, can return their books. These books then have to be quarantined and cleaned before we can discharge them from the student account and put them back on the shelves. I had done much research into what the appropriate time is for the virus to live on various surfaces incuding paper and the plastic jackets of books. Library associations around the world recommend 3-5 days of quarantine but the Shanghai CDC are enforcing a much tougher ruling of 7 days and during that time the books must be laid out flat so that the front of the book is exposed to light. They cannot just be stacked in piles or put on trolleys! Then they have to be cleaned with a disinfectant wipe. This is quite an undertaking for us as we have to track which books are where in the process AND find space to lay them all out.

You can see from this example that the authorities here are really taking a belt and braces approach and enforcing perhaps stricter than necessary rules in an attempt to control any further outbreaks of the virus. This is tough medicine but the proof will be in the pudding. With my knowledge of UK schools I cannot see them being able to put even half these measures in place!!! We are extremely fortunate to have domestic staff to clean every class room between sessions and to have a veritable army of guards to enforce entrance protocols. We have thousands of masks ready for everyone to be able to use a clean one each day and we have boxes and boxes of disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizer and disposable gloves.

It did feel good through to be able to walk back into the work environment as it seemed very much like a step in the right direction. And not just the fact that I will be less sedentary! I personally have enjoyed working from home. I have prepared and recorded sufficient online content for every grade to last to the end of the academic year if necessary and I have done this in peace and quiet with no interruptions which I have greatly appreciated. I have put in some hours (see previous comment about the length of time each video takes to make) however I have LOVED the fact that I had zero commute and I could operate in an unstructured day taking breaks when I needed or nipping out for a coffee meeting from time to time. Working in comfortable clothes was also a blessing!

The downsides for me have been the continual and probably overuse of the laptop which has given me headaches, poor posture and RSI symptoms in my wrists and arms. I have found the technology curve to be a steep one to climb and most of it has had to be self-taught. Only mere months ago I was blissfully ignorant of Zoom, iMovie, Screencasting, Handbrake, Ensemble, SeeSaw or even some of the WeChat and PowerPoint functions!!! Now I switch between them all  rapidly and fluidly. The journey hasn’t always been smooth though and I MAY have said some bad words in the direction of my equipment when things were not going well… part of the problem is that China doesn’t permit all applications so we can’t use Google or You Tube which is a shame as there is a lot of good material currently being made available…

On campus I am based for now in the Middle and High school library with my team so I am now located next to the tech hub which is a very comfortable safety net so I can relax now on the tech front. Phew!

It has been marvellous to SEE colleagues, albeit in masks, and to have normal conversations. The biggest problem though has been the stipulation by the government that we cannot have the air con on yet. It is not yet the heat of the summer with its soaringly high humidity levels but we are beginning to get there with temperatures between 20-30 degrees centigrade. Already the library space is stifling in the afternoons and wearing the mask becomes sweaty and uncomfortable. The school has replaced all the filters in the A/C system as per government requirements so hopefully we should get some cooler air soon. In the meantime it isn’t pleasant.

Another eerie thing is seeing all the empty classrooms and offices, knowing that the staff will not be back for ages and in some cases due to retirement or new jobs – ever! But their desks and work spaces are just as they left them. Someone will have to go and and pack them up. I have had to go into a few to search for their overdue library books and it felt all wrong. The moral is, I guess that you should leave your desk as you would wish someone else to pack it! Always!!!

This has been a massive learning curve for everyone and it isn’t over yet. I am busy setting up a click and collect library service which hopefully will keep families supplied with new reading material over the next few weeks. Thanks Tesco for the inspiration.

My first year in China has certainly been an unusual one!




One thought on “Back to school: It’s normal, Jim, but not as we know it.

  1. I really dont know what to say. Life is unreal for us at the moment in the UK but compared you your routine Lisa we are on holiday!!! It is great that they are protecting you so efficiently. It is good to know that you are safe and coping with it all. Keep up with your informative blogs as they tell it how it is but with a wry sense of humour x Keep safe x

    Liked by 1 person

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