Placing People First: Our Stories in the Midst of a Crisis
By Nil Chen / Ivana Fan (The original text is in Chinese, translated by Anna Chammat)
It is 6 in the morning while the sky is still dark. Mr Gu Heping steps out of his apartment in Shanghai's Qingpu and rushes his way to YCIS Shanghai's Hongqiao campus. 7am is the critical time for the morning security team to take over from the night shift, and Mr Gu must be there to supervise.
As soon as he steps into the security office, Mr Gu immediately has his body temperature checked by a staff member from the evening security team, and then is sprayed with hand sanitisers onto both of his hands, disinfects his shoes, and finally put on his face masks and goggles. In order for the gears to serve their purposes effectively, they must be pressed on tightly against his skin. After a 12-hour shift each day, each of the security staff has left with deep marks on their faces.
Back in early January, the Yew Chung and Yew Wah quickly responded to the crisis and instructed every Yew Chung and Yew Wah school to be aware of the epidemic and take proactive measures.
On January 21, all schools launched the Yew Chung/Yew Wah Infectious Disease Response Plan against this novel infectious disease (now named COVID-19), activating the serious response level (Level II).
The next day, Mr Gu took part in a group training in YCIS Shanghai, so to be familiarised with the new preventive measures added into the security staff’s daily routine while the schools are closed. These include making sure the workplace is thoroughly cleaned and sterilised, disinfecting key areas every two hours.
Also, teachers must notify the security team in advance if they need to be at school, followed by a series of new safety and preventive measures before being led into the school’s premise: registration with their ID cards, having their temperatures taken, disinfecting their hands and feet and finally putting on face masks.
"There was a supply shortage of face masks so every one of them counted.” The escalating outbreak prompted Mr Gu, the manager of Hongqiao’s security team, to look for any face masks by visiting over dozens of pharmacies in Changning District, even having to donate his own at one point, before supplies from the Yew Chung and Yew Wah organisations finally arrived.
It was also a challenge to get food delivered during the Spring Festival. Fortunately, Mr Gu was able to have instant noodles and fruits for lunch brought in by colleagues. Two of the security staff have not been able to return due to the travel restrictions imposed by the outbreak, so the remaining 13 staff have been on duty for more than three weeks, without a break.
To ensure every inch of the school ground is safe and ready for our teachers and students when they return requires many pairs of eyes to look for any missing details. Mr Gu recalls a recent inspection where a leader from headquarters pointed out that the floor mat placed at the school’s entrance was too small to disinfect shoe soles thoroughly. He immediately noted that down for the School is making all the necessary preparations for the return of our students and staff.
However, our battle against the epidemic actually began before Chinese New Year.
Staying ahead of the Epidemic
“On January 21, after hearing on the news channel that should the Hong Kong SAR Government raise its response level to Level 3 (highest) against the coronavirus outbreak, this could entail school closure, we began discussing arrangements for school closure and preparations for e-learning. It now proves that we were right about being prepared in advance. It would be too late if we had waited until after the Chinese New Year holiday to react,” Dr Esther Chan, Deputy Chief Executive Officer responsible for basic education at the Organisations, told us.
That night, Joyce Chen, Chief Technology Officer, spent the entire evening until the early hours of the morning communicating with the IT Divisions at each school and our vendors to prepare for e-learning.
The next day, Dr Esther Chan and several leaders from headquarters called on a meeting with all the School Leadership Teams (SLTs) to discuss our plans for e-learning. Her holiday to Tokyo several days later resulted in web conferences and four take-away dinners at her hotel room.
In the evening of January 23, the School Governing Board (SGB), which is the final decision-making body of the Yew Chung and Yew Wah network of schools, decided to suspend all classes in view of the development of the epidemic turning critical. Schools were required to be closed for two weeks, while every student and teaching staff were asked to fill in their health declaration forms. Our new media and marketing teams swiftly released news articles to inform parents of our latest decisions and responses. Yew Chung and Yew Wah schools were among the earliest to decide class suspension, well before the regional education bureaus had made any official announcements.
Robert Horton, Education Director from the UK, understood how difficult it was to make this decision.
Three years ago, when he was working in Tanzania, a country suffering from the Ebola crisis at the time, he had experienced similar fears, worries and frustrations: “We planned for the worst at the time, ordering protective gears such as scrubs, rubber boots, impermeable suits, and worried about not being able to travel home if travel bans were announced. We considered closing the school but fortunately, the infection never travelled to East Africa. It was more concerning back then, because throughout the crisis, the Tanzanian Government did not take as serious and effective measures to contain the disease as the Chinese Government.”
Rita Chen, a member of the SGB as well as Director of School Business Operations, has served at YCIS Shanghai for over 25 years and witnessed the SARS outbreak in 2003: “During SARS, classes were still running, with the addition of reporting our students’ health statuses to the Education Bureau and Centre for Disease Control. The current situation is far worse. This Chinese New Year was supposed to be a time for celebration, but we are now tested in our ability to quickly respond to this crisis.”
Rita believes that megacities such as Shanghai, require the government to introduce many measures of monitoring and control as they are faced with great pressure; and so “during difficult times like this, schools are taking up as many responsibilities as they can; each of our colleagues is also trying their best to be understanding and accommodating.”
Imagine countless online meetings, WeChat group chats, text messages and emails happening one after another and sometimes all at once: this is the reality our SLTs, school offices and IT divisions are facing.
Some of our Western Co-Principals are currently outside China, but they still try to stay current with the latest news, and ask their colleagues to share news from the government for them to read, with the help of a translation device.
“Four of our school leaders were sending us emails at 3 or 4 a.m. We are turning into online customer service officers!” chuckles Jack Tao, Head of IT Division in YWIES Shanghai Lingang. “My son made me instant noodles for lunch for the past two days, as there’s just not enough time!”
In order for e-learning to be fully ready, the IT Division had trialled two online platforms and finally settled on the one that runs on a more consistent and reliable system. They are learning about the new system, and at the same time training teachers on how to use it, plus making themselves available at any time for any questions.
“With the support of our Marketing, Human Resources and IT Divisions, we worked for two days straight till midnight to upload more than 4000 lessons worth of materials onto our new online platform.” Kelly Luo, Head of School Office in YWIES Guangzhou, has too many people to thank, “Shellie Zhao worked till 3 a.m. in the morning, repeatedly checking and revising the timetable. On Chinese New Year’s Eve, Janice Tian didn’t stop posting important information and updates on our various media channels till 4 p.m.”
Some teachers from YCIS Qingdao’s Chinese Department volunteered to translate letters to parents for their school office, because some office staff struggled juggling between work and taking care of their families.
Jennie Wang, Head of School Office from YCIS Shanghai Pudong, is very impressed with the work ethics her SLT has shown, “They discussed until midnight on how to better phrase each sentence in the two letters for parents, because they wanted to make sure they were sending the right message across!”
Another important but tough assignment is to track our students and teachers’ health statuses.
Grace Zhang, Head of Support Division from YCIS Qingdao, was busy going through the details of various projects from the Seeds of Hope Concert while she was at her husband’s hometown in Chinese New Year. As soon as she found out that the concert is cancelled, she spent the entire New Year’s Eve and Day communicating with different suppliers, also checking up on the well-being of our supporting staff.
Knowing that a parent had just returned from his business trip from Wuhan, Mary Yu, Chinese Co-Principal of YCIS Shanghai Pudong, immediately picked up her phone to call up and check if the family was safe and healthy: “I wouldn’t be able to get any sleep if I’d waited until the next day.”
Jenni Wang with her team at School Office and classroom teachers spent a whole week calling and tracking nearly 1,000 students. She also phoned or sent daily emails to parents who are outside China. Her son didn’t believe she was busy and even asked “Why do you give me five assignments each day when you only have to do one?”
But more importantly, the schools and teachers were overwhelmed by the lovely letters and encouraging words from parents, “Thanks a lot for your care; it means a lot to us.”
Some parents even reached out to help us further by donating necessities that will be extremely useful when schools reopen. A Grade 7 parent from YWIES Yantai donated more than 300 bottles of disinfectants; an ECE parent from YCIS Hong Kong donated 2000 face masks; a Grade 5 parent from YWIES Guangzhou donated 1,000 face masks, 800 bottles of hand sanitisers, 2,000 pieces of alcohol pads, and a box of disinfectants.
“The ‘We Care’ message in the thank you email sent by Dr Betty Chan on February 3, made me feel like we are all connected as one. Although it is a simple message, we are able to remain calm, act rationally, show kindness and support towards one another and stay united as a family in this crisis, just like what Dr Chan has advised us to do,” said Juliet Han, Head of School Office from YCIS Qingdao.
Placing People First
As an expatriate teacher of YCIS Chongqing, Ian Nash's travel plans for the spring break went awry when he arrived in Zhuhai only to see empty streets and hearing about the airline flight cancellations to China. He immediately cancelled the remainder of his trip to Hong Kong and Macau, and took a flight to Thailand instead. After two weeks, he flew again to Phnom Penh, Cambodia as his travel companion’s Thai visa would soon expire.
“The first part of my holiday was intense: I was working 14 hours a day, on top of having to apply for a travel visa, hand-wash my laundry in the hotel sink, book my accommodation for the next day, trying to buy face masks from pharmacies in a foreign country to the best of my ability, and follow up on the epidemic’s latest development. I haven’t had a day of rest in my entire holiday since staff and students across the world require my team’s urgent assistance, and they are all locating in different time zones. This is definitely not a typical 9-5 work day for me and my division.” Mr Nash also noted, “In intense situations like this, I have to do the best that I can.”
“We don’t usually assign expatriate teachers to take part in trainings during Chinese New Year holiday, and if we do, we would state it clearly in the school calendar so they will have time to reunite with their families and friends. However, all our Chinese and expatriate teachers were extremely supportive when being notified about the online training for e-learning, and the workshops were quickly filled up,” said Julie Zheng, Education Director.
As the shuttle bus to town stopped running, Charley Eddolls, Head of Secondary English took a ride with Co-Principal, Shannon Shang, for grocery shopping for the week. “Shannon, I am so bored at home. My lessons for next week are all ready and I’m counting down the days to go live!” “Haha,” Ms Shang laughed, “then I can teach you how to make steamed fish while you’re waiting! Here, buy this brand; they make the best soy sauce!”
While they were chatting, Ms Eddolls joked, “You know what? I would never want to be in your position, especially in times like this!” However later, Ms Eddolls helped Ms Shang answer some of the questions from other teachers, and texted her, “Shannon, I will give you the same advice you gave me, which is to turn off your laptop and watch your favourite TV show. You need to take some time off!”
“We never regard what we do as a business; what we truly care about is always people, and that includes our students, staff and parents. This means our principles must be people-oriented and understanding,” said Dr Troy Lui, Chief Education Officer. He understands many of our expatriate teachers are facing the struggle between the risk of the epidemic and wanting to perform their teaching duties, and emphasises that their well-beings should especially be tended to.
Dr Lui has asked a Western Co-Principal to return to his home country immediately as he has a health condition, because he would be able to receive better medical care back home as China’s medical system is currently under a lot of stress. “We simply cannot let such a wonderful and hardworking colleague to risk his health!”
The Organisations also advised another Western co-principal to stay in his home country after finding out that his son was suffering from high fever. “When so many countries have asked their nationals to evacuate from some areas of China, we must be considerate about the struggles and feelings our teachers are undergoing. We appreciate those who choose to stay in China but we fully understand if they want to travel back home. As long as they can maintain the quality of teaching and learning on our online platforms, we respect the personal decisions that they have made.”
In order to protect the health and safety of the Yew Chung and Yew Wah community, the Organisations have requested that all who return must undergo a 14-day home quarantine before returning on campus. So far, some expatriate teachers have chosen to stay in Thailand because many flights to China were cancelled, and Thailand is in the same time zone as China. Some teachers were able to fly back before the travel bans were announced, simply because “My students mean a lot to me. I can’t wait!”
Although e-learning is a challenge, it also widens the possibilities of education. Perry Lau, a Mathematics teacher from YWIES Tongxiang, jokes about finally living the life of a social media influencer. Seeing our teachers dressed in their professional attire when they are delivering a class in front of the camera makes us applaud their respect to the profession. Ms Shang’s biggest worry has been the network suddenly crashing, and she once asked if there was an “Internet god” that we could pray to like the Chinese god of wealth (Caishen Ye) people pay respect to during Chinese New Year.
Ms Shang already has quite a few project-based learning ideas in mind, which helps teaching to stay relevant with the current situation without contradicting the government education policies. Some examples include explaining how viruses survive and reproduce in Science, devising a set of algorithms to predict the rate of infection in Mathematics, critically analysing the impacts of plagues on human history, also learning to tell the differences between facts and opinions by reviewing Chinese and English news articles…. The first advice she has written for teachers is to focus on learning.
Supporting Each Other in Times of Hardship
Regional governments each has their own rules and regulations on teaching and learning during this period of class suspension. Parents also have their own expectations on e-learning. However, CEO & School Supervisor, Dr Betty Chan, insisted to launch e-learning amid the flurry of conflicting views because our students must be supported in their emotional well-being, and social interactions and that they should be provided with learning resources.
“E-learning’s main purpose is not about the academics, but to regulate our students’ state of mind. As educators, we must always put our students’ needs and interests first, while keeping close partnerships with parents, as these attitudes will make decision-making a lot easier,” said Dr Lui.
Julie Zheng, Education Director, agrees that frontline teachers’ main responsibility is to guide students on building healthy study and daily living routines. “Home quarantine is actually a valuable learning experience if we can look at it positively. Teachers and parents can inspire students’ imagination by having them write down their feelings and thoughts in a diary. Physical Education teachers also can introduce lots of indoor training for students to build healthy living habits.”
“Educating students without touching their hearts is meaningless,” said Rachel George, Head of Student Support at YCIS Beijing. With 16 years of experience in counselling at an American school, Ms George has dealt with many crises including a suicide on school campus, a gun shooting, and two natural disasters. After receiving an email on January 23 from the SLT, stating that the school will be closed, she realised that students may be facing a traumatic event in regards to their social and emotional health. “Students need persistency in order to maintain a sense of stability. Without their usual learning and teaching routine at school, their sense of stability is severely disturbed.”
E-learning requires additional discipline and self-control from students. Therefore, Ms George has provided various social emotional lessons for teachers to incorporate into their sessions. She also attends live sessions with some students to observe their behaviours and provide additional support via their online chat system. Students with anxiety concerns struggle with concentration and completing assignments on time, so she provides additional support with cognitive behavioural sessions and positive self-talk, asking students to write down their thoughts in a journal for six weeks and attend a video chat with her twice a week.
“Parents find it challenging to maintain a consistent schedule for their children while also running a household and keeping up with their own professional schedules. Primary parents also wonder what the best way to discuss the current situation in a non-scary way is. To assist in these areas, I am providing one-on-one tips and ideas through messaging with parents, and have suggested helpful activities that they could do at home,” said Rachel.
Every day from 7.30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Ms George checks in with her students on three occasions, and also talks to 6-7 students or parents. Anticipating school re-opening would be another challenge for many, she has planned a series of activities on community building and classroom intervention that will help students in reorienting back to school life.
The Support Division is keeping our school areas safe and ready by working behind the scenes. Scott Li, Supervisor of YWIES Shanghai Lingang’s hospitality team and Education Resources Centre, previously was responsible for guest room services at the Marriott Hotel, and is proud to say we are adopting even stricter cleaning and preventive measures than hotels, “This is because we are serving students and they have weaker immune systems than adults.”
Faced with the severity of the coronavirus outbreak, our Support Division staff are practising the guidelines as stated in the Yew Chung/Yew Wah Infectious Disease Response Plan: everything that is used in the Residence Hall, from bedding, curtains, window screen to air-conditioning filters, must be thoroughly sterilised and dried; every touchable surface, including the drinking water dispense machine, must be disinfected at least three times during the day, and sterilised by UV light at night; every doormat must be disinfected every two hours, and areas such as stairway handles, doorknobs, buttons in elevators and buttons on printing machines should be disinfected at least 5 times a day.
“We are working closely with the Education Bureau and the Centre for Disease Control. As a result, our cleaning routines are repeatedly revised and amended whenever we receive updates from them. Each time, our cleaning staff will start their training ten days in advance and engage in routine checks five days prior to any changes. We ask for strict implementation for all of our measures, or else it will be altogether ineffective,” said Grace Zhang, Head of Support Division from YCIS Qingdao. Some of our measures are even stricter and also introduced ahead of the government. For example, we have decided on the one-seat-apart arrangement when students are dining. Ms Zhang also worked with purchasing team to procure extra necessities during the Chinese New Year holiday, making sure the school is fully stocked until the end of May.
Jimmy Ji, Director of Support Services, said the Organisations have checked its inventory and launched response plans to purchase supplies that are urgently needed, ensuring our frontline staff are well-equipped and their safety and healthy are safeguarded. Our schools are co-ordinating with the suppliers to make sure they are able to operate as usual after the epidemic passes.
Before classes resume, infrared thermal cameras will be installed at the entrances of school campuses that are more populated, which will help detect any cases of high body temperature and prevent the spread of the virus. “Such equipment is expensive device installed mostly in train stations and some universities, as they cost hundreds and thousands of dollars. We are amongst the first international schools to use such systems, with the aim of protecting our students to the best of our ability.”
Vivian Wang, a Chinese teacher from YWIS Rizhao has just assigned a fun mission for her students: Look out the window or around your house to look for any “Messengers of Spring”. And what did the kids find? A child has put a fallen aspen branch into a vase, only to find it covered with little buds after a while, looking just like a caterpillar. Miss Wang was delighted with his discovery and left a comment: “New life is here with the coming of Spring!”