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Lessons learned during COVID-19

School Counsellor Sue Morrell Stewart at the Renaissance International School Saigon, Vietnam shares her perspective and her student’s experiences on school closure and online learning during the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic.

Lessons learned during COVID-19

By Sue Morrell Stewart

We returned to school in jubilation this May, feeling like waking up from a three-month COVID-19 (Coronavirus) nightmare, filled with shadows of social-distancing, pulsating images of Zoom-fatigue and the deep loneliness of self-isolation.

This all started in early February, when we returned from our Tet New Year holidays with the distant indications of COVID-19 in March. Shortly after, we were informed about the closure of Vietnamese schools until further notice.

Fortunately, teachers were initially allowed to teach online from school, enabling them to exchange new digital tips and learn best-practices before launching into the online classroom alone. Microsoft Teams became the school’s backbone, with additional apps like Zoom and Flipgrid providing invaluable support.

Class time quickly became face-time for students and educators; classroom-banter was replaced by chat-streams and life soon shrunk into a digital screen.

Interestingly, both teachers and students found online learning was not so bad and was often better suited to the more introverted students. It just went on too long!

“I really enjoyed online learning more, as it was easier to chat with teachers one to one and to express myself. I also preferred the opportunity to structure my own working time,” admitted a year seven student.

“Along with improving digital skills, we also learned resilience and self-discipline.”

Another year 13 student said he really enjoyed the opportunity of discussing university life and outside knowledge with his teachers whilst online. “I learned that knowledge does not need to come from the curriculum. It is anywhere, but we need to take the initiative to explore and discuss,” he said.

It was mid-March when we first experienced real COVID-19 panic. It ignited the school with the discovery that one of our teachers, ironically participating in a school Coronavirus hand-washing dance challenge, had been in contact with a person who had socialized with someone who, “tested positive”. Suddenly, we realized how silently this pandemic could spread and how vulnerable we all were.

We were instructed to return home immediately and it was during the next six weeks that we began to discover the real loneliness of quarantine and social-distancing. With malls, restaurants and parks closed and outside time limited to brief shopping or exercise routines, the walls of our homes slowly closed in. It was during this time that we learned the real value of people and how to vary our daily routine with small alterations like room or desk changes.

Human interaction was what everyone missed and, as a school counsellor, it was a challenge to help both staff and students communicate their frustrations and find purpose in this limited life. Looking back, while we were battling with Zoom-fatigue, webinar overkill and self-isolation we were also learning valuable soft skills.

As we sat in our silent homes, longing for those casual chats between staff and students we had taken for granted, we began desperately to compensate with group video calls, online pizza parties and quiz nights and to learn new interpersonal skills.  Although it was sometimes difficult to read body-language or exchange a side-remark with ears and eyes grasping for meaning between photo frames, we made new connections with family, peers and colleagues.

“It was during this time that we learned the real value of people”

“I’ve learned the importance of effective communication, you need to say what you mean as clearly as possible since miscommunication is so easy online, “explained a year 13 student.

“I felt lonely, classmates always made the mood loud and active in class, but they were quiet at first when they were in a group call,” said a year seven student.

On the other hand, teachers said students were often reluctant to turn on their video cameras, which made communication even more challenging, especially to read participation level or understanding. Some students felt so isolated they didn’t engage at all and it was a huge challenge to find ways of winning them over through individual video calls or parental assistance.

Along with improving digital skills, we also learned resilience and self-discipline. It was difficult to get dressed in the morning when you knew you weren’t going anywhere, but if you went through your daily routine of meals, lessons and exercise―there was the reward of perhaps a Netflix movie afterwards.

“I learned that at the end of the day, you can only rely on yourself to push through tough times, especially when others around you are also struggling,” admitted a year 13 student.

“I learned how to entertain myself,” said one student, while another said proudly, “It taught me how to be patient with my parents!”

Of course, another major challenge was that the May 2020 exams were cancelled for final year students.

“I will remember the day the IB exams were cancelled for the rest of my life. I wasn’t exactly sure how to react after two years of hard work―suddenly there was nothing to work for,” shared a year 13 student.

Another disappointment came with the news that social distancing regulations would prevent a graduation ceremony and celebration dinner. This decision was recently changed, and the permission was given to have a ceremony with limited participants and social distancing.

Students have now returned to school and restrictions are slowly lifting but these memories and lessons will stay with them.

Sue

Sue Morrell Stewart is a South African trained Secondary School Counsellor who has taught at a number of public and private schools in South Africa, China and Vietnam. She became interested in international education while on a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching scholarship to the United States in 2011 where she researched digital career counseling in the U.S.

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