the other side – covidschooling in beijing, china
An almost empty flight from the United States to 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.

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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.”