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Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Finding Covid Normal ...

... the Kiwi's latest column, in which she looks at best practices globally for dealing with the global pandemic 

Port Melbourne's Railway Club Hotel has added outdoor spaces as it prepares to reopen under Covid Normal. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

'Dying in droves' - CovidSchooling in Milan, Italy

The dining table has become a home classroom for Melissa and her roommate Lindsay. Photo provided.

When coronavirus first appeared on teacher Melissa’s personal radar, she and colleagues didn’t take it very seriously. That changed quickly for the US citizen who lives and works in Lombardia, a northern region of Milan, Italy, that became the ground zero of the virus in Europe.

Melissa says a couple who worked at the same school in Milan last year now live in Shanghai and, having spent the Chinese New Year holiday in Vietnam, had been told not to return to their school in China.

“They came to Milan before heading home to Canada, so we joked about how coronavirus was a lucky circumstance that reunited us all,” she says.

A few weeks later, Melissa and fellow teachers were out on a Friday when some mentioned there had been a few cases of Covid-19 in the province.

“We again joked because the bar had covered up the Corona labels on the beer,” she says. “We had no idea that would be the last time we saw each other for the school year.”

The infection rate quickly exploded in Italy, centred on Lombardy, with more than 30,000 deaths attributed to coronavirus as of early May.

“Our region was the first to shut down, the first to close off from the rest of the country,” Melissa says. “We felt the lockdown earlier and harder than any other part of the country. We also know that we will likely be the last to ease restrictions.”

Melissa says Italy was initially “all over the place” in its response to Covid-19’s rapid global spread, with the Prime Minister, regional governors and mayors of major cities all saying different things.

“For example, at the very start the national government was encouraging lockdowns and the Mayor of Milan, Beppe Sala, kept telling everyone ‘#MilanoNonSiFerma’, which basically means ‘Milan doesn’t stop’, encouraging people to still go out to eat and not let the virus scare them. However, when people started dying in droves, he quickly changed his tune. 

“Now, everyone is on the same script it seems. Announcements are more centralized for the whole nation, and the ‘decrees’ that limit or ease restrictions are national and legally binding. My Italian reading skills have improved tremendously in this time because the relevant news for us locally is not often translated. However, my school is a bilingual school and thus they translate and share all of the major decrees with the staff.” 

For Melissa and her Canadian roommate and fellow teacher, Lindsay, these decrees meant staying in their apartment except for grocery shopping, and then only one person could venture outside and must wear a mask, with fines of thousands of euro for not doing so. 

“We lost everything we used to do for fun - going to the gym, eating out, seeing friends around town. We had to adapt and find new things to entertain ourselves separately, and common activities to do together.”

Melissa’s roommate spent a lot of time doing yoga and Melissa sang virtually with her church group from when she lived in the US. They watched favourite shows together and painted to occupy their time. Seven people in her apartment building work at the same school, and they grew much closer as they shared information, teaching resources and the experience of being an expat in a foreign country ravaged by coronavirus.

Both roommates taught from home five to six days a week, Melissa says.

“I teach drama classes, run extra drama clubs, including rehearsing a play, and mentor the Student Council. She teaches 4th grade.”

Each is on Zoom one to four hours a day, taking classes and planning meetings, and also nurture their mental health through video chats with a therapist, and interacting virtually with families and friends. Additional hours are spent reviewing online work submissions from the students.

“Our school is a 1-to-1 iPad school, so every kid is connected and turning in work, meaning we have hundreds of assignments to mark and give feedback on each week.”

Melissa said they have had to be creative in how they deliver content and engage students.

She teaches drama and special education, and had to jettison entire units of curriculum that wouldn’t work virtually, such as group physical theatre. In contrast, many students now have more attention from their parents, less distraction from their peers, and infinitely more time to complete work, she says, so the quality for some has grown enormously.

“There are definitely some kids flourishing with this new, more independent style, which will inform future in-person teaching I am sure.”

The students mostly miss their friends, she says, and some have lost grandparents to the disease, so the teachers make allowances on the work those students need to do. Melissa mentors the Student Council, which has developed “Well Being” challenges for their peers to stay healthy and happy by doing off-screen activities. 

She mostly works with older students, in Years 4 and 5, and says they are reasonably well informed about what’s going on.

“It’s nice because our job as teachers is to create whatever normalcy we can, and not linger on the virus. I think the kids are grateful for the escape too,” she says. 

In the first weeks of Italy’s lockdown, Melissa’s friends and family reached out through social media with concern for her, requests for updates, check-ins, and offers to video chat.

“Maybe it was a morbid fascination with a problem that didn’t seem to directly concern them,” she says. “When the coronavirus came to America, the check-ins stopped. I now reach out to THEM to make sure they are ok!”

Her family initially asked if she wanted to return to the US “to wait out this mess,” but it wasn’t a good option, she says. She would have no health insurance in the US, while she has full universal healthcare in Italy, and would have to be essentially nocturnal in the US to meet her work requirements and Zoom class times in Italy. 

She also felt that flying at that point put her at high risk of catching the virus and suspected Italy may not allow foreigners to re-enter the country for a long time, so she might not be able to return to work in the fall. 

Melissa says she and her roommate worked hard to keep their relationship healthy during the quarantine and she takes time every day to appreciate the comforts she has, despite the circumstances – “a secure job, a roof over my head, plentiful food supplies, an awesome roommate. I recognize it could be so much worse!

“I also am learning a lot on the practical side about technology and teaching, and how to creatively use tools to teach drama, technical theatre, and more!”

From May 4, Italy started relaxing restrictions after 11 weeks, reopening parks and allowing residents to exercise more than 200 metres from their homes.

Melissa says life hasn’t changed much, but being able to walk more and see friends while maintaining a safe distance is welcome. The wearing of masks is still mandatory and Italian residents appear very conscious of giving each other personal space.

She and her roommate are still teaching from home, taking up most of their time, but there is hope they may be allowed back into school buildings before the end of the year to collect possessions stranded there, and possibly meet with other teachers to plan the next academic year.

I think the general feeling in the air is gratitude, because we have all been deprived for so long,” she says. On the 18th stores will reopen, so it will be interesting to see how the dynamic changes.”

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Taking a break - CovidSchooling in Manitoba, Canada

Baker Lake, Nunavut, Canada, where Tara worked until early March. Photo provided.

A look at how teachers, parents and teachers are coping with schooling during the coronavirus global pandemic.


Occupational therapist Tara and her husband live in the prairie province of Manitoba, Canada, with their two sons, aged 12 and 8.

She says coronavirus affected her directly in early March when she was working in schools in Nunavut  - the vast, sparsely populated northernmost territory of the country. The government in Ontario announced it had cancelled school for three weeks to flatten the curve of infection and transmission, she says.

“The announcement came in the morning and by 4pm I was instructed to get on a flight home. They were unsure what the situation in Nunavut or in my province, Manitoba, would be moving forward.”

Since then, she says, her family has been together in social isolation without visitors, all day, every day.

“We used to be on the road every day but now we are working from home,” she says. “It has been hard to balance work, parenting and home schooling our children. There has been more than one tearful day from me.”

However, the boys’ teachers and school have been fantastic, she says, and relieved her worry that she would have to plan her sons’ schooling. Work is assigned to be completed each day, videos uploaded explaining the work, lessons given live online and time available with teachers online also. Packages of printed materials are picked up from the school as needed and the completed work is submitted to Google classrooms.

Two to four hours a day isfocused on schooling, Tara says, with some days being harder than others.

“Trying to keep them occupied the rest of the time is the difficult park,” she says. “Parks are closed here so we have a trampoline and ride bikes and go for walks for recess time and just to get moving.”

Canada recommended that one person oer family shop and only once a week, and wearing cloth masks when out was also recommended.

The Internet became the family’s social channel during isolation, as the boys used Kids Messenger to catch up with their friends, and the parents held Zoom visits with their friends in the evenings.

Like many other countries, Canada instigated social distancing, with essential businesses such as grocery stores, pharmacies and hardware stores remaining open. This week, on May 4, restrictions started to be relaxed in Manitoba, with more businesses allowed to open for at least limited services.

These include retail businesses; restaurants for patio service and pickup; therapeutic and medical services, including non-urgent surgery and diagnostic procedures; museums, galleries and libraries; seasonal day camps, outdoor recreation and campgrounds; and hair salons.

Tara says some businesses don’t have protocols in place or appropriate protective equipment so are choosing to remain closed or to open later. In those that do open, 2-metre physical distancing is still required, as are frequent cleaning and sanitizing and time limits on customer interactions.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been very calm, open and positive about what is going on and makes a statement every morning, she says, including a recent one in which he answered letters and questions from the nations’ children. Trudeau’s wife, Sophie GrĂ©goire Trudeau, tested positive for coronavirus early on, sending the first family into isolation, so the disease is particularly close to home for him.

Tara says her boys are doing well in their new normal but are missing their friends and their sports of baseball and figure skating. They are following the new rules without many questions, she says, and she feels they are handling it better than their parents.

“No person can be a teacher, a parent and full-time worker and you need to give yourself a break,” she says. “It’s ok if the boys work doesn’t get done, or the house is a mess or you need a mental health day to binge watch Harry Potter with your kids.

“It’s ok not to be everything to everyone and to take a break.”

Friday, April 17, 2020

The Other Side - CovidSchooling in Beijing, China

An almost empty flight bound for Beijing in late January. Photo: Matt Prichard

A look at how parents, teachers and students around the world are coping with schooling during a global pandemic.


NOTE: One thing we see with the coronavirus crisis is that the rules and expectations change daily, if not hourly. As I was doing the final edit of this article on the morning of Saturday, April 4 (Australian time), theBeijing teacher I had interviewed was changing her plans for the weekend and following week. I have kept the interview as planned, and added an update at the end. 

For those wondering why a different name was used, some of the teachers I spoke with (both in Asia and in Western countries) have requested anonymity as they don't want to be seen as speaking for their schools. I'm fine with that as it allows them to speak more freely.

When I first interviewed Anna (not her real name) at her home in Beijing, China, her 6-year-old daughter had a Zoom call scheduled with her class.

“But it’s not working very well,” Anna said. “I hate e-learning.”  

Her family comprises of herself, a secondary school teacher at an international school in the country’s capital; her husband who is self-employed in the hospitality industry; and their daughter. They also have an ayi – literally “aunt” in Chinese and the name given to domestic helpers – to assist.

Anna is on her second teaching stint in China, where she has notched up more than a decade, and she was in the country during the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS.

She says she became aware of this new coronavirus sometime in January when it was being reported in the news, and it became a topic of conversation.

“We heard, ‘oh, there’s a new mystery flu in Wuhan,’ and we started saying, ‘is this going to be another SARS?”

Schools e-mailed parents, explaining they were monitoring the situation and detailing the plans they had put in place, she says. A few days later, as they learned a little more, restrictions began to be placed on who could go on campus.

“There were some school events that got cancelled because they didn’t want parents on the campus. The parents that came in to pick up their kids were instructed to leave immediately and at morning drop of, they couldn’t come in.

“At that point, they were checking the temperature of everyone coming in, and asking people to put hand sanitiser on to come into the school.”

Following the lessons Asia learned during the SARS outbreak, “China got serious much faster this time,” Anna says.

“By January 24, they had shut down a city. Then a couple of days later, they had shut down the entire province of that city and started daily reporting how many cases there were. I think they learned from SARS, and also from other epidemics that have happened.”

Spring Festival, the Chinese New Year break during which millions of Chinese travel, was very early this year, falling on January 25. Anna and family were overseas, and extended their holiday for a few extra days, knowing that the life they returned to in Beijing would be very different.

“But I just wanted to be home,” she says. “This is home for us. I was finding it really hard teaching online from our holiday.”

Once home in Beijing, e-teaching didn’t become instantly easier. For the first three weeks, Anna felt she was doing a lot more work than in a normal school week, but it got easier as her school changed guidelines, she says.

The lack of face-to-face contact with students makes follow-up difficult and time-consuming, she says.

“You message the students, and you don’t hear back so you have to email, and copy the parents. A friend in Shanghai said the amount of work they’re doing just chasing up kids constantly is insane. Every day, they’re following up with kids and it’s so much work.”

As for teaching her daughter, Anna says she has cried “so much” while trying to teach her.

“It is incredibly hard. I hate it. Because it’s hard to give all my attention to work [teaching], and it’s hard to give all my attention to school. She always wants something. She always needs me.

“She’s six, so she has a hard time focusing. At first, she was really excited that mom was going to be her teacher. But the reality set in and there were so many changes those first few weeks, of what e-learning was going to look like for our school, that it got difficult to keep up.

“It’s hard for me to sit down with her because a lot of the times, her Zoom calls are at the same times as I have classes. I can’t sit down with her to do her work when I have to do my own.

She and her husband “gave up” on the assigned lessons but read books with their daughter each day and use math resources they have. Anna hopes to have more time later to catch her daughter up with her proscribed learning. The 6-year-old also gets Chinese practice with the ayi and her friends, and sometimes watches Chinese TV.”

China did not put the capital, Beijing, into lockdown, but enforced social distancing and people were asked to stay home.

“Most people stayed home because they didn’t want to get the virus” Anna says, and the compliance with the request was also partly cultural.

In China, “it’s more about the collective good than the individual good. I think that’s why some of the Western countries have had a harder time with it, because you take care of yourself first, before the collective.

“But in a lot of Asian countries, like China and South Korea, it’s more about the collective and the common good.

People didn’t like staying in their apartments but did, regardless, she says. Another factor was that when the situation became severe in Wuhan, some residents were locked into their apartments, so there was a sense in Beijing of staying in voluntarily rather than being forced to.

Beijingers now feel the worst is over and people can relax, and are going out more, while all wearing masks.

Since our first interview last week, Beijing has announced seniors could return to school from April 27, with a full return taking place grade by grade. There are many new rules and safeguards in place.

“Hours are restricted to 9:30 to 3:30,” Anna says. “Students have to stay one meter apart at all times. Everyone must wear masks at all times. The windows have to stay open.

“Right now I have to start reporting my temperature twice a day through a survey on our school WeChat account. If I do not do 14 consecutive days I will not be allowed to return yet. The school has to be inspected multiple times before they officially allow us to have our students back on campus.

“So it looks like I will be working on campus to teach one class in person, and teaching the rest of my classes from a classroom or office but remotely. There are still a lot of kinks being worked out.”

UPDATE, 18/04/2020

Anna was informed by her school on Friday night that she would be expected on campus on Monday, to teach remotely from the school, and sent training that needed to be completed first over the weekend.

She says she had “kinda been wanting for this anyway” as it had been so hard to work at home with her daughter present and incredibly uncomfortable chairs.

“I’m looking forward to getting back to my school and my ergonomic desk chair, and just being in the environment that makes me want to be a teacher, and not the environment that makes me want to relax and get out in my yard, and start crocheting and knitting.”

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Designing a Solution – CovidSchooling in Far North New Zealand

Fish lures crafted by a student. Photo provided.

Remote teaching is difficult for all teachers but brings some unique challenges for Greg, a veteran teacher working in New Zealand’s far North. Greg teaches technology subjects, which in New Zealand encompasses metal work, wood work, design and technical drawing.

His first stint as a teacher lasted 12 years, before he worked as a designer for 10 years in the superyacht industry, then three years as a mechanical engineer. He returned to teaching eight years ago.

“As an older man coming back to teaching, I have chosen to teach in the poorer area, where there are more difficult students as they live in poorer communities,” he says.

“Younger teachers have difficulty staying in these positions. Older teachers have more experience with tough kids to draw from.”

The high school in which Greg teaches has an 85% Maori population, New Zealand’s indigenous people. 

“Relationships are paramount to these students,” he says, “if they don’t know you and your tribe, they have less respect for you as a teacher.”

New Zealand is in full lockdown, the country’s Level Four, with the steps up from Level One through Four happening in just a few days, he says. He lives with his wife, who works in the health field, and the couple’s adult children live elsewhere, one in Melbourne, Australia, and the other in Wellington, New Zealand.

The existence of Covid-19 was on the country's radar since the first outbreak in Wuhan, China, and the government had been preparing its response, but the harsh reality struck suddenly, he says.

“The government announced the lockdown including school closures. They also bought the school holidays forward two weeks to align with the start of the lockdown. This was to give the teachers a chance to figure out how to teach their subjects from their homes.”

That’s a tough task to figure out for a subject that is mostly very hands on using many specialised tools and machines in the school’s hard materials room. Greg says the students really enjoy working with the materials and making things, and find satisfaction in the tactile experience. Practical lessons don’t translate well to Google classroom or Zoom, and the ability to make things differs from household to household.

He says no one was ready for the sudden move to full lockdown, when Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that the country would, “Go early and go hard”.

“The nation has responded and followed the procedures,” he says. 

“This has meant no travel out of your home except to get supplies. Supermarkets are open with a limited number of people allowed in at a time. Suddenly all the roads and streets are quiet. There are daily announcements on the public television channels. The director of health and the prime minister speak daily and keep the nation up to date with pandemic.”

Many students in the area where Greg teaches, and elsewhere in New Zealand, don’t have Internet access so the Ministry of Education is trying to provide connectivity for all students.

“The government is mostly concerned with the wellbeing of the population, so they are delivering food packages to those in need and later they will deliver devices so that students can work from home. Fortunately, couriers are still able to work.”

He has been in contact online with most of his older students, at least those who have Internet, and they have access to his online lessons.

“However, the need for personal contact is important to my students and they rely on personal interactions to make them feel confident in their work.”

Greg says it is still early on in the fight against Covid-19 for those in NZ and there will be many things learned once things settle.

“Teaching will never be the same,” he says.

“I have no idea how to teach students to be builders and engineers from my home. It is possible to teach programming and robotics, however this doesn’t suit the situation here in NZ. We have plenty of creative people who can do this and struggle to make a living due to the geographic location of our beautiful country.

All he can do, he says, is to keep encouraging his students to be creative so they have the desire to become builders and engineers.

“There is a real shortage of skilled workers in NZ and we can’t let it get any worse, so the push is on to find ways of teaching the skills that require feeling and practice.”

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Shelter in Place - CovidSchooling in California, USA

Sheltering in place. Photo provided.

A look at how parents, teachers and students around the world are coping with schooling during a global pandemic.


Elizabeth is a professional singer, household manager and self-acknowledged domestic goddess whose family relocated to California in 2017, after three years in Hong Kong. Her family bubble, under the golden state’s  Shelter in Place rules, comprises of her husband, 13-year-old son, and 12-year-old daughter.

Her family stays in close connection with many friends in Hong Kong so first noticed coronavirus via Asian media.

“I still get SCMP [South China Morning Post] and belong to the [Discovery Bay, Hong Kong] forums so the runs on toilet paper were what we saw, and honestly laughed at, first,” she says.

She had a solo trip planned to visit friends in March but, “no sooner was my ticket issued, it was cancelled”.

Schools in Hong Kong had closed by then and friends had left for “safer pastures” in South Africa and Australia, she says.

It’s surreal to think the disease in in the United States, she says, as no one she knows has tested positive or even been sick.

“I suppose that’s great news, it just makes it more difficult to personally connect with the severity.”

School has been cancelled for the rest of the US academic year, which runs through mid-June, with online learning put in place. It’s working for the most part, she says, but keeping up with communications from each teacher – her son has seven – and keeping assignments straight is sometimes challenging.

Her daughter has one teacher and one online learning platform so managing that is “exponentially easier”.

“I haven’t needed to keep up with her at all.”

Both children are “ok” with the situation but it is hard on them socially, especially for the daughter who is a social butterfly, their mom says.

Elizabeth is not doing anything differently per se, but laundry and dishwashing have doubled overnight.

Her husband is a busy executive with a global entertainment company. "My house has become his home office”, she says,  although she now understands what he is paid for, and is grateful for the continued paycheck. His days are longer than they would be ordinarily but the house is large and each has their own space and room to breathe. They recently turned the spare room into his office space so he can work undisturbed.

While sheltering in place, Elizabeth took part in a collaboration of 50 studio singers from around the US in tribute to the nation’s frontline healthcare workers. Each singer recorded their part from their homes.

“The piece was arranged by a friend of mine in Chicago and among the singers were friends from my days in college and Disney,” she says, referring to her time as a performer for the company.

In the offline world, her kids are doing their own laundry and dishes, keeping their rooms tidy, walking the dogs, taking out the trash, and other chores, and there are not that many day-to-day changes.

“It’s not a lockdown, no curfews, etc. We are free to get outside, go to the market, walk the dog, go to the doctor. We live in a small neighborhood with larger homes, therefore fewer individuals. The weather is very dry and warm and sunny during the day, cool at night. This allows us to keep doors open all day and use the sun and fresh air to our advantage.

“So far, our kids haven’t asked many questions. They’re smart kids and understand what and why.”

There are disappointments, she says, such as her daughter foregoing the lead in her school play and a planned trip to NYC, and her 12th birthday party.

“She understands, though. They know it isn’t forever. I think the biggest thing ‘we’ have learned, and I’m not sure it’s a good thing, is that you CAN completely avoid personal contact but maintain relationships online.

I’m an introvert, to be certain, but personal contact is important. It’ll be nice to hug again.”

Friday, April 10, 2020

Coping in Cambodia - CovidSchooling in Phnom Penh

Kaylene's view over Phnom Penh. Photo provided.

A look at how parents, teachers and students around the world are coping with schooling during a global pandemic.


When I started interviewing Kaylene for this series, Cambodia was not in lockdown. A few days later, on Sunday, April 3, I woke to the news that the country was considering instituting a state of emergency. Two days later, Kaylene explained Prime Minister Hun Sen had not declared a state of emergency but had prohibited large group events, including the Khmer New Year celebrations.

Life for all of us right now is fluid, changing daily or even hourly, it can only be more so for those who are far from home in a foreign country.

Kaylene’s family bubble in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, comprises of herself, her husband, and three children – ages 13, 8 and 6. Dad hails from England and mum / mom from Canada. The couple met in China, where both were teaching. Kaylene is now a Grade 3 teacher at the Canadian International school, where her husband is a full-time substitute teacher.

Having lived in China, Kaylene says they heard about the coronavirus crisis when it first began to unfold publicly in January, and made sure to “keep our ear to the ground as it might approach us quickly.”

Expatriates in Cambodia with pre-existing conditions or those whose age made them more vulnerable headed back to their home countries, Kaylene says, but she and her husband decided to remain in Cambodia as their parents are older, and they did not want to put them at further risk.

Cambodia has a very large Chinese population, she says, but until very recently, there was only one known case.

“Then the director of our school got it!,” she says. “Schools were immediately closed and online learning began. We knew it was coming, and we were prepared. Our kids are fine, and they seem to trust our judgement.”

All three children are being home schooled with the curriculum provided by their teachers but Kaylene says they seem to be receiving more work than when they were in school.

“We told the school we would do a maximum five activities a day, and we focus mainly on maintaining mental and physical health.”

Teachers and families are now working together to find an appropriate balance that allows time to complete activities while still achieving curricular goals, she says.

For her own students, Kaylene is holding daily meetings with mini lessons on remote conferencing service Zoom, and assigning activities on remote learning app Seesaw. She is working on the curriculum for the remainder of the year, and says everything has “intensified”.

“I believe the purpose is to create a sense of normality,” she says. “I think there needs to be more support for families. Not every child has a parent home all day.”

In Cambodia, she says, many families rely on nannies who don’t speak English.

“It’s new territory. We are doing what we can.”

Kaylene says the family is wearing masks whenever they go out, as do most people she sees, but she has not gone out socially in more than a month.

“We are remembering to take time for us, and also to help our children focus on their health – mind and body.”