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Covid-19: An update from China

As I’m ‘living in the future’ of the coronavirus outbreak, people have asked what life is currently like in China. I want to share that. I’m also conscious that writing about being in Shanghai during one of the worst epidemics since the Spanish Influenza will contribute to the overall historical record of our collective human experience. I like the idea of being a part of that. Perhaps this will also help me to reflect on what I'm taking away from this experience - learning about what's really important.

Coronavirus has taken over the narrative of my daily life since January 20th, 2020. It’s been a long time. While some of you are just starting your e-learning journey, I’ve been teaching online since February 5th. COVID-19 hasn’t been easy for anyone and reading the news daily and hearing people’s stories has been very tough. My sister lost her job and some friends are getting their pay and benefits slashed. Others, both here and abroad, have fallen ill but have thankfully recovered. I feel most lucky that my immediate family is healthy, so I can’t complain too much.

What have you been doing all day?

Teaching. So. Much. Teaching. And so many Zoom meetings. And emails. So. Many. Emails.

But besides that, I’ve finally taken the time to do things I’ve wanted to do for years. I planted a herb garden and have loved watching it grow. There is something very soothing about watching these little seeds sprout into plants. I taught myself to crochet, so I’ve successfully made two scarves and two baby hats (no, no baby to put them on yet!). I also read Jonathan Van Ness’s biography Over The Top, which I loved and, besides the became-super-famous thing, I think it reflects the story of so many young gay people. I’m always on the lookout for great stories about people in our community, so it was a good read in the sunshine.

Having Netflix has been a saving grace because I haven’t been able to get it to work for a long time (stupid Great Fire Wall of China), but I finally have it (welcome to the 21st century, Tia). I got it in just enough time to pickle my brain in the amazingness that is Tiger King. I know some of you might not be as in love with it, but that show is ridiculous. There are so, so, SO many bad things about it, which of course what makes it so, so, SO good.

The best thing about being at home is spending time with my beautiful wife. We’ve genuinely enjoyed the time together. We love being outside, so that brings me to the second best part of being home: being able to go outside during the day. I despise getting up for school when it’s dark and then coming back in the dark; or being too tired when I get home from work to leave the house. I’ve been loving daily walks around the local community and parks. The weather is spectacular, and because of the lack of pollution (and closed factories), we’ve had the clearest of days. Living in China has truly made me appreciate the blue skies of the Canadian prairies.

How is the e-learning going?

It’s good.

No, it’s okay.

Honestly, it goes against my nature as a teacher, and it’s a love-hate relationship.

Mostly hate.

I do like that I get to see my students. But it’s exhausting trying to manage screens, glitches, voices and background noise while trying to teach a useful lesson to my 9-year-old students (I do not envy you grade 1, 2 and 3 teachers!). I’ve had kids picking their butts and noses (thankfully not at the same time), eating, playing with dogs, brushing their hair, yelling at their moms, and all kinds of other things I just cannot fathom their reasoning for doing when they know I can see them.

I’ve been able to focus on my biggest teaching goal this year – improving my student’s writing, which has been going well. I also really like seeing the student’s work posted on Seesaw and commenting on it - when they post. Like school, some are enthusiastic students, while others are, well, exactly as they are when they are at school. Why would I expect them to be any different? Yesterday I did have to remind the kids: “Just because we are not in the building known as 'school', does not mean we are not in school or shouldn’t produce the same quality of work we did before. This is still your education, shaping who you will become, with or without the school building.” I’m a bit of a drill sergeant sometimes.

I get their struggle, though. I prefer being in the classroom too because the online medium is - I’ll say it - just not as fun. I imagine it’s the same for learning. Being in class online just can’t be as enjoyable as being in class with your friends.

How do people in China react to you now?

My wife and I are used to being stared at in China; it just comes with the territory. I understand the statistics are now showing the virus is being brought back into China by foreigners, but I have to admit it kind of hurts as China is our home. In the last few weeks, some people have all but recoiled in horror at our presence. People have walked around us, stopped in their tracks and crossed the road, or covered their mouths while walking by. One person wouldn’t get in the elevator with us. But I understand, and thankfully these people are few and far between.

What is quarantine like in China?

Well, for us, it wasn’t that bad, as I mentioned in my previous post on this, but for foreigners who came through when they started shutting down borders to certain countries – it got tough.

One colleague was separated from her son when she tested positive. Another colleague had to spend 18 days in the hospital with mild symptoms, who just “got out” last week.

A dear friend of mine was trapped in quarantine for over 100 hours. She and her husband were separated, had little food and water, and had no information as to when it was going to end. My wife and I wanted to help, so we thought the best thing we could do was to get them food. It took two Chinese friends and us almost 24 hours to find the address of the “hotel”, make countless calls to workers to figure out if it could happen, contact the delivery service, order the food, deliver it to the location and then get it through their security.

We arranged with the delivery company to separate the food into two care packages for our excited friends. It was lifting their spirits, and we were all texting back and forth about how good it was going to be. We sent three pizzas, two buckets of chicken, four packs of cookies and candy, four Coca-Colas, and four 1.5L bottles of water (I did think about sending wine but thought that wouldn’t get through). First, the delivery went to the wrong hotel. Then, it was held by security for 12 hours, and after more phone calls, they were finally going to get it – success! Cold pizza is better than no pizza, right?

My friend sent us a photo of what they actually received: cookies, candy, two Coca-Colas and a single baby bottle of water. Someone at the hotel had taken the order apart and threw a sweet pizza party - they just weren't invited. I do hope, though, that it was the underpaid and overworked government employees and not some evil villain who was hoarding all the misrouted deliveries for themselves.

Thankfully, those experiences for foreigners ended pretty quickly as China simply closed their borders. It was too overwhelming to deal with all the travellers.

One downside of the border closing is that several of my friends are trapped in other countries. It’s a tough situation for them – they didn’t return to China before the borders shut yet can’t go home because their home countries are overtaken by coronavirus. So they are stuck, unable to return to work if the schools open without the borders being open, and are waiting it out in rented homes.

The other downside is that I don’t think we, as foreign teachers, are going to be able to go home this summer. At this point, we can’t even leave the city without having to redo our 14-day quarantine. That might seem minor, but that’s difficult when you only get to see your family once a year.

What’s it like now, and when will you return to school?

We still wear masks and need to have our temperatures taken frequently. We also have QR codes with our current health status on it to gain entrance into some places. As for when we return to school, we are starting to hear about start dates. If we pass the right inspections, our school might be starting back the 18th of May. But nothing is for sure.

For myself, I’m worried about going back – there are so many unknowns. There are so many rumours flying around. Most of it is what I imagine to be some sort of apocalyptic version of the world – an I am Legend-esque situation, of course minus the total wipeout and vampiric, cannibalistic twist. I’m being only slightly dramatic, right?

No mixing or sharing of classes. Staggered entry and exits. No more extracurricular activities like Makerspace or yoga. Lunches in the classroom or inside individual, plastic pods. No assemblies, gatherings, recess or celebrations. So many of these details shape the school experience, so what's left?

The most daunting detail for the potential starting of school is the genuine chance of having to wear a mask while teaching. This is a personal, reoccurring nightmare of an apocalyptic school return. Breathing into the same mask all day, while simultaneously trying to teach and manage a class of fourth-graders sounds like something out of a bad horror movie (not like I am Legend!). I can barely stand wearing it when it’s hot outside, never mind all day while teaching, talking and dealing with student behaviour. In my opinion, if we aren’t safe enough to be mask-free at school, then why are we going to school at all? Surely that means we are at risk, which is why they shut schools down in the first place. Why rush it? How are kids supposed to feel safe if we aren’t safe at school? Aren’t students mean to feel the safest within those walls?

But I don’t run the world. I am not a business, like the schools are here, where student and teacher wellbeing might not be directing all the choices made. I am not a government or school board, like the schools at home, who have other factors playing into their decision like elections or parent-pleasing. Either way, I’m just a regular teacher trying to navigate these waters, as so many of us are.

If I were to run the world, though, I’d start by saying: “Hi. My name is Tia, and I want to know: how are you today and how can I help?” because I want to help people feel connected, heard, and cared for. I think that is the general feeling for what we are lacking as professional teachers. While we are drowning in work and criticism, it is obvious to me that all teachers want to do is help – help our students, our communities, and each other.

And that is so important.


STEM Editor, Tia Luker-Putra

Tia is a Canadian high school French language turned elementary science teacher of 13 years, living in Shanghai. She is passionate about working with teachers and students to help improve curriculum, especially science. She also has a love for the Sustainability Development Goals of the UN and teaching students about them. She believes it is important to develop empathy in students and connect them with the world around them, and solving the world's biggest problems is a great way to do it! Tia loves to travel, be outside, share her experiences on Twitter, and hang out with her wife and their cat, Kimchi. Twitter

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