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Daegu Lessons – Schooling in the Time of Covid-19

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daegu lessons – schooling in the time of covid-19
Credit: Andrew Salmon

This is the first in a series of articles on how parents, teachers and students are coping with schooling and education during this global pandemic.


Between January 19, when South Korea’s first coronavirus case was confirmed and February 18, 30 cases had been identified and no deaths attributed to the disease. That changed quickly once the country’s Patient 31 tested positive for Corona virus on Feb 18, having twice previously refused to be tested.

A member of the Shincheonji faith, a local flavour of Christianity viewed by many as a cult, Patient 31 had, before testing positive, twice left a hospital in the city of Daegu to attend church services. Each service consisted of about 1000 of the faithful, worshipping in close proximity.

Within 10 days, more than 2000 cases had been confirmed in South Korea, a large number of which were linked to the church and to Patient 31, now dubbed a “Super Spreader”. Health authorities at one stage believed one in five of all those infected in the country could be linked to Patient 31 through other contacts.

Just a few blocks from the Shincheonji church is United States Army Garrison Daegu, where Michelle teaches English and Literature to approximately 90 students at a US Department of Defense middle-high school. She has been teaching for 33 years, the last 28 of those spent overseas, and has been based in South Korea since 1993.

Michelle has two grown daughters, a son-in-law and and five grandchildren. One daughter has left California to reside in Singapore, probably for the next year, while the other is “hunkered down working from home in Kansas.”

“If I could,” she says, “I would bring all of them here, with me, to Korea, because it is certainly safer than the US.”

South Korea is seen as one of the countries that appeared to contain the spread of the virus quickly, without the need for a lockdown. The country credits its approach of testing, tracking, tracing, and treating for its success, with tests readily available and either free or at low cost. Tracking those who tested positive and tracing and testing all they may have come in contact with was also a major factor, but relied on a degree of surveillance that would be unwelcome in many Western countries, along with a relatively compliant society where science is respected.

By the last week of February, Michelle says, her school had been shut down.

“There was no time for training or planning,” she says. “Basically, we took our computers, went home, and figured out how to teach online.”

The first week was “holy hell”, she says.

“Twelve to 16 hours a day, seven days a week reorganizing assignments, planning, fielding tons of e-mails from students and parents, online school meetings, trying to get the internet to work properly with our school computers at home, more e-mails, more explanations of directions, grading, printing – which takes me 4-5 hours every time.”

“By the end of the week, teachers and students fell into the new rhythm and not so many panicked e-mails were coming in.

Michelle said while in school, she would meet with students from 160 to 240 minutes per week.

“We could cover a lot of material and discussion in that time and I could make sure they knew exactly what was going on and what the expectations are. That is valuable time that we no longer have.

“A teacher cannot expect students to spend that much time at home on just one class.”

She is very flexible on deadlines and content but says her students respond similarly to how they did in person. Those who did nothing in class do little online also, she says.

“The rest are rock stars. Our students are very adaptable anyway, but in this situation, they are outstanding.”

When not teaching, Michelle now only leaves her apartment to go on base for groceries or to her school to print out papers to grade.

“Online grading is not practical for me because I seriously mark my kids’ assignments for content, grammar, spelling, and punctuation, and it would take me three times as long to do that online,” she says.

“I currently have about 300 assignments to grade sitting in my living room, which is only a bit above normal for a couple of weeks of marking with that number of kids. Almost all of my contact with other people is online or by phone. Most of my classes when we were in school consisted of us reading and discussing literature, together, so that I know the kids understand what they are reading and so that we can discuss a writing in depth. It is very different from math or science where a teacher can make a video to explain something.

“Since our closure time has been extended, now, I am considering other options going into the last quarter of the school year. One event I am going to work on over spring nonbreak (travel was prohibited during Spring Break, meaning a cancelled trip to see family for Michelle) is working with one of my friends in Germany and our AP Lit kids on discussion of a short story in a Google meet. If it happens, it will be the first time in two months where I have met with an entire class and seen my kids.”

Although Michelle lives off base, or “on the economy” in military parlance, she is very much a part of the little bubble that is a United States Forces Korea installation, where those in charge reacted quickly and decisively.

“We have been pretty locked down, so there have only been three cases on our base in two months; those were caught very, very quickly because of immediate protocols the military established when this broke in our community.”

She says that bubble makes her feel much safer, but she is highly anxious about what is going on at home in the US.

“Within the last two days, I have begun to see reports by friends on Facebook that relatives are seriously ill and the numbers have gone up exponentially there,” she says. That did not need to happen. I feel that my family and friends are being endangered by entitled people who leave their homes for frivolous reasons, who do not practice social distancing, and who do not follow practices suggested by the medical profession.  It really scares me.”

With school closed, Michelle misses her students and tries to make this new way of learning as pain-free for them as possible.

“As a teacher, I have to be flexible and I have to maintain a sense of humour,” she says. “That second one is really, really important. And, on some days, it is the most difficult thing I have to do.”

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