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Back to school

Sadly, the life that I once knew and loved before COVID-19 is no longer the same, but what I do have is a small opportunity. It is a chance for my family to get a taste of normalcy.

Bing Matoto

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The government has apparently already made a decision that our schools will reopen in August albeit under a “no-in-person classes” scenario, unless by some miracle, the pandemic will have eased by then. This will consequently mean distance learning, which is of course only possible if the students have Internet connectivity. Other options being considered will be to rely on radio, television or print to conduct classes. There have been widespread concerns expressed on how effective these measures could play out considering the limited online capacity of the country, as well as its affordability and how effective the other modes could be.

On the other hand, quite a number of countries however have decided to resume regular “in-person classes.” One such country is South Korea where my daughter Anne lives with her family. I give way today for her to share her experience with what a back-to-school is like in Seoul.

Back-to-school in Seoul
By Anne Matoto-Sznaper

The resumption of in-person classes is a distant reality for many families residing in nations still undergoing mass quarantine and school closures. However, that is not the case for a parent like myself, based in South Korea — a nation widely praised for having successfully responded to COVID-19 despite neither having closed its borders nor instituted a national lockdown.

In May, South Korea moved on from its strict social distancing campaign and implemented an “everyday life quarantine” policy, aiding people to slowly return to their “normal” life under eased distancing restrictions with the reopening of schools as the main feature of the new scheme. Sentiments are divided on the topic of face-to-face classes among Korean nationals and foreign residents. An online petition of 230,000 signatures had even been issued to the presidential office, a failed attempt to delay school reopening, which officially took place for high school senior students on 20 May.

According to Korea Herald, South Korea’s school “normalization” used a gradual approach, welcoming them in phases, from high school students to elementary, then down to kindergarten. And just as every path has its puddle, the back-to-school plan got off to a bad start when high schools in five districts of Incheon had to shut down after some students tested positive for COVID-19.

Let’s fast-forward to the present — with the completion of the government’s four-phase reopening plan consisting of 5.95 million students back in school — and attempt to understand how “normal” the school environment has been since the distancing rules have encroached on the campus life of both students and staff.

As for my experience with my children who are in Fourth Grade and Kindergarten, attending a French international school in Seoul, apparent changes were made pursuant to sanitary regulations from the government.

To name a few, impacting everyone’s usual routine, lunch is no longer provided in the cafeteria and is eaten outside school premises; there are specific entry and exit times for each grade to prevent mass crowding; and kindergarten students are welcomed in half groups with only half-day schooling offered.

It’s definitely a disruption to the usual program particularly for parents with several kids who need to shuttle them back and forth. But hey, it is a small price to pay to ensure everyone’s protection (and peace of mind) in school.

Thankfully, the administration has been in regular communication with the parents, whether it be about updates from the Education Ministry on places to avoid or to the transmission of the reopening dates/guidelines, to say that they have been proactive and responsive is to say the least. A back-to-school protocol document was given to each family to carefully study, and it provided a clear picture of the school’s daily parameters, serving its purpose to quell any worries and manage expectations.

Up to this day, daily emphasis is placed on the following school rules:

1. Submit a health questionnaire.

2. Wear a mask all day.

3. Maintain a one-meter distance from others.

4. Wash your hands regularly.

5. Do not touch other people’s belongings.

6. Submit to temperature checks.

My children have been happy to be back in school amid these social restrictions on campus. They’ve adapted to them quite well and seem to understand the importance of following them. So far, it has been manageable particularly for my four-year-old who for now has half-day classes — and is able to break free from the mask after three hours — but looking ahead, I do wonder how she would respond to six hours of mask-wearing and social distancing in school.

Marjorie Boussard, the primary school directress of Lycée Français de Seoul, was kind enough to provide me with more details and share her perspective on the school’s current situation.

1. What is the hardest challenge that the school has successfully overcome (or is still trying to overcome) since the reopening of school in June?

The main difficulty is to welcome all the students, at the same time facing the very strict sanitary measures and especially the social distancing.

It is very challenging because we don’t have many extra rooms and spaces, and we have to offer good conditions of work to everyone, students and teachers from kindergarten to high school. Thus, for the secondary school, we had to keep the gym and the library as standard regular classrooms. In other classes, we also had to remove furniture to free new spaces.

We also were very worried about the youngest students. In kindergarten, teaching children to respect and maintain social distancing and keep wearing the mask at all times are very difficult, but it is amazing to see how they successfully apply the measures. We had to remove furniture to create space. Every child has his own space, with one table to work on and a mat on the floor to play on.

They know this is their house and they cannot let someone enter or go to another’s. They have their own box with their materials for work and play. It is renewed every day.

During recess time outdoors, the students play differently with other kinds of games, which let their imagination go. Teachers also provide bikes for every one (they are in half group) and organize activities around a route to ride the bikes.

All the spaces are disinfected several times a day, especially all the materials and objects used, and during the half-day we have a full disinfection.

However, what we still need to work on is the capacity of welcoming all the students from kindergarten at the same time. Currently, they come half-day to reduce the number of students at the same time in the classroom, and enable us to maintain the social distancing. We don’t exceed 12 students per class.

We are still thinking for the new back-to-school way of welcoming up to 20 students per class.

The other big issue we have not figured out is reopening the restaurant for lunchtime. We have to provide the restaurant for 450 students, and with the distancing, and with a short break period, it is impossible. We are still working on other alternatives.

2. What kind of involvement does the Korean Ministry of Education have with the school’s affairs specifically since its reopening?

The government regularly sends us the instructions and asks for the answering of surveys. They helped us with providing once a set of light masks, a disinfection of the premises, and the lending of a thermal camera. They also helped provide special masks made for deaf students.

We have regular meetings and work in total collaboration with the French Embassy, the Association of Students’ Parents and the Seoul Metropolitan Bureau of Education.

3. What advice would you give to parents of students who are hesitant to send their children back to school (if given the opportunity)?

If the school has a clear and strict sanitary protocol, parents can trust the school and the students. Actually, the kids are so happy to go back to school that they accept and respect all these new rules. All the education team are strongly concerned and mobilized to make the things work and to respect the rules. If everything is clear about the sanitizing, the regular use of disinfection, the barrier and prevention gestures and a clear common awareness and collective sharing of the protocol, then they work. We are often surprised to notice how students adapt and fit so easily and naturally to a new environment. They are full of resources and we have to be confident and trust them.

Then all the teachers, education staff and parents are here to work together and remind them of the rules.

Many may think it’s insane to be sending my girls to school at such a premature stage with the virus still lingering about. But this is the life that I now have to face and the government and school administration that I have to trust. Sadly, the life that I once knew and loved before COVID-19 is no longer the same, but what I do have is a small opportunity. It is a chance for my family to get a taste of normalcy — even if under false pretenses — to pick up the pieces of our lives shattered by this horrible pandemic, and put it back together piece-by-piece in the form of a smile or a hug from my girls as I fetch them from school, hearing a Father’s Day poem being recited, or even a simple greeting of “bonjour” between the teacher and I. Yes, this chance comes with a potential risk of exposure, but with vigilance and prayers, I will take these fleeting moments and try my best to slowly move on.

For comments, please email bing_matoto@yahoo.com

 

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