I teach fourth grade at an international school in Hong Kong. Here’s what I learned from returning to the classroom.
My name is Rachel but kids around the world know me as “Miss W8.” I started my career as a junior high teacher in California. I taught in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, during the Zika virus, and then moved to Hong Kong 3 years ago… just in time for the worst typhoon in 30 years, flu outbreaks, protests, and then COVID-19. I am one lucky lady.
The last year has been full of interesting and unprecedented times (I think we’re all ready for some precedented times, am I right?). But teaching abroad has put me in a unique position to see how other countries react to sudden school closures due to extreme weather, mosquito-borne diseases, protests, and highly contagious pandemics.
In May, after 4 months of a virtual learning program, we transitioned back to a somewhat regular school day in Hong Kong. We were able to end the school year with 6 weeks of a “new normal” back on campus.
As a teacher, I was ecstatic about returning to some kind of normal and for the social interaction of being back on campus. However, I felt daily anxiety about returning to school.
I’m a healthy, single, rule-following gal who feels called to the profession of teaching, and I knew my students needed to get back to school. I was willing to follow all rules and precautions, including only traveling to work and back and for essential errands for a few months.
Still, I also knew that might not be enough to keep me safe. Without any say in how the school day was organized, I was exposed to the students I teach, my fellow staff members, everyone I passed on my way to and from school, and also whoever is in their circle.
While there isn’t as much of a stigma around wearing masks in Hong Kong, I had no idea how well my students and colleagues were adhering to social distancing.
We faced incredible pressure to keep to what seemed like impossible guidelines: keep kids distant, masks on, temperatures checked, hands washed, and everything sterilized.
Teachers were asked to manage all this while trying to catch up on the academics we missed in the curriculum. Not mention, we had to help students rebound from the emotional and mental struggles many of them faced during distance learning.
But you know what? We did it. It was challenging for everyone at the beginning, but we persevered and were able to pull it off! Here’s some of what I learned along the way. I hope it might make your transition back to school — whatever that looks like — a little bit easier.
The return model looks different from school to school, because schools have to factor how many students can safely be on campus as a time, what supervision looks like, and how things like lunchtime might work in a new way.
Regardless of your school’s specific return model, things will be different. Prepare your children for that reality, now.
Because we need to stay 3 to 6 feet apart, a lot of the logistical changes you can anticipate depend on how much physical space there is at your school. My school did half days with half the class at a time: one group in the morning and one in the afternoon.
We taught the core subjects at school and then had project-based learning for the time kids were at home. We still used our Google Classroom website and SeeSaw to post links and additional activities students could do at home.
Obviously we all wore masks at all times, and students brought extras from home. They were much better about it than I had anticipated — only one student had a really hard time, but after a quick talk with the vice principal about how important it was, he was never without a mask again.
Our routines had to change — we had kids enter in two different places instead of just through the front door. We checked temperature and sanitized hands at the beginning and end of the day, and after different activities.
We used tape to mark how far apart kids should stand from each other in line outside the classroom. We replaced air filters and ran air-conditioning at all times, airing out the room every day.
Another major change was with seating arrangements and supplies. To keep contact low, each student sat at their own table. We no longer could do partner activities, group work, carpet time or “explore around the room” kind of tasks we used to do.
I made a tray of all their supplies (or they could bring a tray from home) and before class started each day, I’d put any papers or books we might use in it. That way, I didn’t have to walk around during the day to pass things out, as I normally would.
When we used laptops, I’d put those on their desks at the start of the day. When we finished, I’d collect them myself, sanitize them and put them away.
We didn’t have lunch at school, but we did have a short snack, which required me to put a clean paper towel down for their masks and hand sanitizing before and after. We had music classes, modified PE, and modified recess, without mixing the classes together.
It’s been a huge adjustment, but teachers are highly adaptable by nature, and with guidance and a lot of support, kids are, too. This is a new experience for everyone in the world, so we have to be patient and innovative, but together we can be successful.
Everyone had a different experience during quarantine, and it’s important to reflect on what’s changed in the last few months.
What did you learn about your child as a person and as a student? What were some of the positives of spending so much time at home together? The negatives? Have you learned any new skills? How can this help make you a better parent?
We had no choice other than to isolate, but we can choose to learn and grow from it. This is a great practice to model for your kids.
We get to go back to school! Hurray! It has been lovely getting back into the routines and structures of a school day. Seeing friends, comparing how much taller everyone has gotten, and hearing the scratch of pencils again were a welcome change from the clacking of my keyboard!
But there are challenges. Teachers will have to instill a ton of new rules, regulations and routines that might make a return to school seem less fun. At the beginning the adjustment will hurt a bit, so make sure you’re doing whatever you can to get your kids excited about what we are able to do.
Realize, recognize, and respect that your children might feel very differently about their return to school than you do.
We’ve all seen the often hilarious, sometimes cringe-y viral videos parents have been making about the pains of homeschooling. But while some parents may be jumping for joy to send their kids back to campus, some students may be experiencing (but not expressing) really different emotions.
Some kids are worried they will miss you, worried about being behind, or worried about getting sick. Their social confidence might have suffered. My students struggled to readjust to the structure and pace of school, and very sweetly, they all said they missed their siblings and pets.
It’s important to have conversations to help them and you understand their feelings, and let the teacher know if they should be concerned.
Wearing a mask all day, constant handwashing and sanitizing, and staying several feet apart from our friends take getting used to. But if kids get sick at school, there is a possibility of more closures, so it’s important to practice and model these good habits.
I can’t say I enjoyed teaching with a mask, as it takes a lot of energy to enunciate and speak loudly through it, but I’m surprised how quickly I got used to it. (Teacher tip: Get a microphone headset! It saved my life.)
We made an art project out of remembering handwashing techniques, and we built in hand sanitizing and temperature checks into our daily routine easily.
I constantly reinforced the idea that we are overcoming tiny inconveniences for the good of the whole community and that being considerate is a great character trait.
Many of the nonacademic “fun” parts about school might be canceled, like field trips, assemblies, or celebrations. When children get (understandably) upset about missing these moments, work with other parents and get creative about how to make up for them outside of school time.
I got my class a pet fish as a fun way to welcome us back to the classroom. His name is Jeff, and they enjoy hollering at him to clean his tank and to socially distance from the Lego figurine I placed inside. It’s so nice to be bonding over things together as a class again.
Dismissal, arrival, recess, and other policies will keep evolving as each school finds out what works for their unique populations. At times it was overwhelming to keep up with the administrative emails and text messages as we figured out what was and wasn’t working.
Despite all the planning that went into schools reopening, once the kids were actually there, we had to make adjustments for all the things we hadn’t been able to predict. It was crucial to stay on top of school communication.
It helps ease your anxiety and that of your kids if you know what to expect. Make sure you’re reading all emails from school administrators, staying involved in parent chat groups, and checking in with your child’s teacher to stay informed and ready for when things do change.
During virtual learning, the students complained about being bored at home and wished to be at school. Now that we’re at school, their greatest complaints are about not being able to snack when they want to (which I silently echo) and not having as much freedom during the day.
Children are resilient, but this is the third type of school they’ve had to adapt to in a year, and human tendency is to think something else was better. Anticipate some struggles in the beginning (it was SO hard for me to not hug or high-five my kids after not seeing them for 4 months!) but they will get in the swing of things soon.
I point out positives like, “Wow! You’ve never had the whole table to yourself!” when they complain about sitting alone. We come up with creative ways to dance in our chairs to celebrate wins, and have really improved our charades skills as we act out animals for each other from our own personal “bubbles” of safe space.
Teachers, cafeteria workers, and janitors are working more than overtime to provide education, a clean environment, and a sense of stability for your children.
As educators, we’re also missing what school was like before COVID-19, so it goes a long way to hear parents and children say “thank you” for what the essential workers at school and beyond are able to provide.
Worldwide, kids have missed months of school or have had adjusted forms of learning. Teachers know this will be a generation we look out for in a special way, and we will catch your kids up.
It will be a long road, but a few weeks of online learning or even completely missing a unit on the life cycle of the frog is not going to permanently damage your child’s chances of getting into their dream university.
Don’t stress out too much about the long-term effects of this temporary disruption, but work together with your teachers to help your children be successful.
When I’m feeling down, I keep reminding myself that no one on earth has done this before. I remind myself that I can only control what I can control, and the most important thing is that everyone stays healthy.
We are pioneers and champions just for making it through. We need to praise our kids, each other and ourselves for every effort we’ve made in our communities to help bring an end to this pandemic.
One day we’ll get to look back and say, “Remember when?” Until then, stay informed and stay safe, taking care of yourselves and each other.
Rachel Weight is a travel and lifestyle blogger and educator from California. She’s currently living in Hong Kong where she teaches fourth grade at an international school. Rachel most often writes about teaching abroad, being chronically single, and travel mishaps at SunglassesAlwaysFit.com. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or on her website.