Back in the Classroom in China after COVID-19

And just like that, it was all over. Or at least, a small part of it was, here in Chengdu. Another step towards normality, or whatever passes for it in your average English Language Training School. Three months after closing down because of the worldwide COVID-19 outbreak, the doors of the school where I work have opened again, and classes resumed. After those long months of working from home and teaching online, I found myself suddenly thrust back into the classroom… almost as abruptly as we had been shut out in the first place.

This, after much to-ing and fro-ing with the local government for certificates and permits. It was agreed that we would be allowed to bring our students back into school by May 15th. The plan was to be rolled out in several steps, starting with the older, higher-level classes before inviting kindergarten students to return on May 25th.

Back to School

And so we lined up outside the school on Friday evening, waiting to greet our students upon their return. At the door, our security guard took temperatures, recorded students’ details and had everyone sanitize their hands before being permitted entry into the school. We were under strict instructions to wear our masks at all times, and ensure that the students wore theirs too. Any slip-ups (or offs), we were told, could result in the sudden revocation of our permit and the school being abruptly closed again. A box of spare masks was duly stashed away in every classroom. Bottles of hand sanitizer in every room in the school.

My own schedule for the weekend took in a Graduation Ceremony, the administering of a paper exam, and a demo class for younger students. A relatively light schedule of events compared to my usual workload, but a lot when stacked against the usual one or two 40-minute online classes per day I have become accustomed to.

I was eased in with the exam – one of my favourite classes, and all students who I had missed during our extended time apart. As per our school’s guidelines, I was in the classroom 10 minutes early, waiting as the students were brought in, one at a time, by the Teaching Assistant. As our classrooms are relatively small and the class size only 10 students, there was no need to have them sit further apart than usual, nor even any restrictions on high-fives or classroom realia. Just leave your mask on, and wash your hands.

“Hello!” I said excitedly, as I greeted them. “Long time no see! Did you miss me?”

The class emitted a collective shrug. One girl giggled. “Your face is so fat but your mask is so small.”

With a sigh, I did away with the reset of the pleasantries and got down to setting up my classroom management system, rejected and dejected. Business as usual, then.

After that, the Graduation Ceremony. It felt strange to be holding an achievement ceremony for a class I hadn’t seen in months (although I had been teaching them the material online); doubly so as the parents entered the classroom to observe. Teaching in front of the parents can be intimidating at the best of times, let alone when their faces are all covered by masks. Teaching while wearing one is a challenge also. The exam and Graduation Ceremony were tough enough, but how would I cope with my first demo class in over five months?

Not Well.

I quickly found myself suffocating beneath my mask as I presented my demo class to the parents and students in a hot, stuffy classroom. Sweat poured down my forehead and into my eyes. I blinked frantically, trying to restore my eyesight. I gasped, midway through the fifth verse of Super Simple Songs’ Heads, Shoulders, Knees & Toes and, for a moment, thought that I might faint.

There were five students, all aged between three and eight years old, most of them new to the English Training Centre classroom. As such, I was working overtime trying to hold their attention, and struggling through the wet, stifling mask. Not even ten minutes in, and I felt as though I was being waterboarded – and with my own sweat. How were the parents reacting? I couldn’t even tell because of the masks, which made it look as though I were being observed by a squad of bored Ninjas.

Somehow, I survived, staggering out of the demo room and into the kitchen, where I quickly downed a pint of ice cold water and shoved my face in front of a portable fan, on full blast. A half-hour demo class had almost killed me – I wondered how I could possibly survive the return of my kindergarten students, whose classes last for a full hour at a time. Hopefully we will have moved past masks by then, or I might not survive the experience.

But, as with everything so far, we take things one step at a time. Just like that, my first weekend back at work was over – another step towards relative normality. Nobody knows how long this tentative return will last – but we hope to see no resurgence from the virus; no return to lockdown. All we can do is our best, one step at a time.

But after all this time, however long it lasts, it’s good to be back in the classroom. It’s about time.

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