During the COVID-19 outbreak, we have some expat staff who stay in Shenzhen. We conducted a ‘virtual’ interview with our Secondary School Principal Ms. Jennifer Hager, our Secondary School Assistant Principal (Student Affairs) Ms. Fritha Jameson and our Activities and Athletics Coordinator Mr. Allan Moore who is also a parent of 2 students (Grade 2 and 4), to dig deeper into their lives and work in Shenzhen during the days of crisis. See what a wonderful teaching and learning community we have at SWIS! Let’s take a moment to read their answers to the interview questions and we hope you will find their messages comforting and encouraging.

School: Shen Wai International School (SWIS)

Staff interviewed:

  • Jennifer Hager, from America – Secondary School Principal
  • Fritha Jameson, from New Zealand – Secondary School Assistant Principal (Student Affairs)
  • Allan Moore, from Canada – Activities and Athletics Coordinator/ Parent of 2 Students (Grade 2 and 4)

Answers from Jennifer:

Question 1 Have you been to Shenzhen all the time during the COVID-19 outbreak? As an international educator, do you have any previous experiences similar to the current COVID-19 situation?

Jennifer Hager: My husband and I returned from the Chinese New Year holiday to Shenzhen on January 27th and have been here ever since. It was the day before we left our vacation in Vietnam when we were informed of schools having an extended break and we figured that schools would be closed for a week or so until the situation had settled down.

As the days progressed, the Leadership Team quickly realized that we needed to develop a long-term solution to maintain a robust learning environment and began immediate work on the SWIS Distance Learning Program. We have remained here as we felt like it was the best place to be for us as far as safety, security and being able to help support our staff and school community, especially for those unable to return. 

As an international educator of 10 years, I have witnessed a variety of unusual situations however nothing quite like the COVID-19 outbreak that we are currently facing. This is an extremely unique situation that has required a significant amount of flexibility, empathy and perseverance when working with many stakeholders to ensure a safe and well-rounded learning environment that is computer based yet personalized.

Question 2 Has life been easy or challenging for you in Shenzhen during the COVID-19 outbreak in terms of meeting essential living needs?

Jennifer Hager: Our basic living needs have been met as the groceries in our neighborhood have been fully stocked and there has been no problem finding transportation or general supplies. Thankfully, our internet and telephone connections have been solid, and we have been able to communicate with our friends, families and colleagues with little to no problem. There were very few restaurants or shops open in our area for the four weeks since our return however we have been seeing more and more establishments are opening each day. 

I don’t know if I would say that staying here during the COVID-19 crisis has been challenging but rather interesting and occasionally inconvenient. We recognize that any inconveniences we face are measures put in place to ensure a safe and healthy community. During times of frustration, we remind ourselves that we are healthy, have food, clean water and shelter – this is much more than many and for this we should be thankful.

Question 3 What support have you received from your school and the school community during these days?

Jennifer Hager: SWIS is fortunate to have amazingly talented educators, open-minded parents and extremely respectful Board Members. SWIS has rallied together as if we are one big family faced with overcoming a monumental challenge.

Upon reflection, our focus has been deliberate and simple. It has involved the identification of research-based strategies for online learning, providing a network of emotional, physical and professional support for students, staff and parents and engaging in rich dialogue with the aim of continuous improvement.

Human Resources, Logistics and Finance Teams have kept us informed about what we should be doing to stay healthy and what they have been doing on campus to keep us healthy, which has been very reassuring. The Board and SLT have not only worked to support our staff with distance learning, they have focused on ensuring that our staff’s wellbeing was addressed from a physical, social and emotional perspective.

Question 4 Your school has been running its Distance Learning Programs since February 3rd. Could you share a bit more about your work relating to the Distance Learning Program implemented by your school during the crisis?

Jennifer Hager: Our school and team decided to take action in January when we heard that the school’s opening would be postponed due to the virus. First, all Senior Leadership Team members worked together to determine the best online platform for our globally based students and staff members. After this, we located all of our teachers and students and learned of their time zones. We then created a 5-day rotating schedule where students and teachers would meet using Zoom for a specified amount of time. Next, we created a SWIS Distance Learning Program Guide for teachers and parents that outlines our philosophy of online learning, ManageBac use expectations, Zoom policy and procedure and a number of other factors such as taking attendance. This was published to all stakeholders in parallel with the 5-day calendar and the Zooming began.

Students attend daily classes, have robust interactions with teachers and their peers, and lessons have progressed as close to normal as possible. Students are engaged in learning new content; assessment tasks are being completed and there is clear evidence of students moving forward on their learning journey.

Since the start of the SWIS Distance Learning Program, the Leadership Team have taken a number of steps to hear the voice of all stakeholders. Parent representative Zoom meetings are hosted regularly, surveys are provided for students and their parents, weekly teacher newsletters highlighting best practices for online learning are sent and parent newsletters are compiled by and sent with updates and important dates. We also host virtual assemblies for all grade levels, mindfulness sessions for students and professional development for teachers. All staff-related meetings that were scheduled during ‘normal’ school times continue with the use of Zoom.

Question 5 How do you think your school is doing in terms of its Distance Learning Program during the temporary school closure?

Jennifer Hager: I believe there are always improvements to be made with any project or company no matter how successful it is deemed to be. People are dynamic in the sense that they have different perspectives at different times about different aspects of our Distance Learning Program. What works for one may not work for another…and this is okay. It is a matter of flexibility and innovation that provide for diverse and equitable learning experiences.

One area where SWIS has been doing particularly well is engaging with the community and adapting our program based on feedback, when possible. SWIS Leaders host parent and student opinion sessions, mindfulness meetings, and virtual assemblies, all of which enhance community and connection. Our Distance Learning Program has been sought out by other schools, both in Shenzhen and internationally that are facing similar situations with the temporary closure. This is an indication of SWIS being a leading institution both locally and internationally and we are humbled by such requests for support and honored to collaborate with the global education community.

Question 6 We know international schools provide a lot of professional development opportunities to teachers. On these days when most onsite professional developments are cancelled, how do you continue teacher training or meetings? Did your school provide any support?

Jennifer Hager: SWIS teacher professional development time has been scheduled for each Wednesday afternoon since the beginning of the academic year. The Leadership Team decided that it was best to maintain as much normalcy during these challenging times as possible and we decided to continue with Wednesday professional development using Zoom. The main difference between how this is done now and pre-Covid19 is that we offer two professional development sessions each Wednesday, one in the morning and one in the evening, to accommodate our teachers who are located throughout the world. 

We continue to offer ‘teachers-teaching-teachers’ professional development where we tap into the wide skill set that our educators hold by them facilitating sessions for one another. SWIS is currently in the process of resourcing outside vendors to host Zoom professional development for both leadership and teachers. Teachers are also kept informed of additional on-line professional development opportunities available throughout the world during this time and given the support they need to enroll and participate in them.

Answers from Fritha:

Question 1 Have you been in Shenzhen all the time during the COVID-19 outbreak? As an international educator, do you have any previous experiences similar to the current COVID-19 situation?

Fritha Jameson: My husband and I arrived back to Shenzhen on 31 January. During the lead up to returning to China we made the conscious decision to return “home” to China as we had arrived at the tail end of SARS in 2003. We trusted China then, as we do now, to be able to handle the outbreak. It is different in that this current phase is the initial stages of containment. The closure of the campus and its ripple effect impacting school and community events feels akin to multiple typhoon days. It is certainly a new experience.

Question 2 Has life been easy or challenging for you in Shenzhen during the COVID-19 outbreak in terms of meeting essential living needs?

Fritha Jameson: It has been absolutely fine considering what is trying to be contained. The initial uncertainty of the what, how and why of COVID-19 has been replaced by a new “normal”. I have family in Wuhan who have very restricted movements in comparison to what is feasible in Shenzhen. Donning my mask, getting the QR codes ready to leave and enter, and being even more mindful of hygiene is offset by supermarkets that are very rarely empty, and many community members working over and above to make the city services function.

Dining has to be more creative, and there has been more home cooking. Exercise is on the home elliptical machine and using Apps. Entertainment for now is a weekly half-day “adventure” out and about in Shenzhen to see what is and isn’t open yet. The rest of the week is focused on supporting the online learning and wellbeing of the school community.

Question 3 What support have you received from your school and the school community during these days?

Fritha Jameson: Support as member of the SWIS Leadership Team has been through evolving government regulations that make sense and are timely; my fantastic Secondary Leadership colleagues that allow times for humor, inspiration, and comradery; and an active Senior Leadership that strives to balance the needs of the school with the human element; and a selection of vibrant WeChat groups with members of the staff both in and outside of China. For expats in Shenzhen, the Shenzhen Daily and Shenzhen Eye have provided helpful tips to living in the city at this time.

Question 4 How do you think students and families in your school are adapting to online learning and how well are they engaged in the Distance Learning?

Fritha Jameson: Adapting to and engaging with online learning by the students and families is along a continuum related to time-zones, technology availability, internet reliability, the family situation, understanding of a concept-based curriculum rather than a more familiar content driven one, and an understanding of what a school community is about. From the data provided by staff at a recent Secondary Division Attendance and Engagement Survey, including feedback from parents, the majority of students and families are very much engaged and have adapted well.

Questions 5 How does your school help with the well-being of students and families at these stressful times?

Fritha Jameson: The well-being of students and families are centered around our SWIS values.

In the Secondary School, our very first zoom session to launch the entire online learning program was centered on student wellbeing and SWIS value of Empathy. Once we had surveyed both students and staff for their locations and safety we organized grade level “virtual assemblies” lead by the Secondary Assistant Principal – Student Affairs with the support of the pastoral team.

Our next phase was to trigger the student advisors to daily “check in” with their students with an aim to let the students know that they still had someone else to support them and to encourage the SWIS Value of Perseverance.

The third phase was to introduce twice weekly optional “mindfulness” sessions for each grade lead again by the Secondary Assistant Principal of Student Affairs, the Pastoral Counsellor and grade level Mentors. This includes visualizations, meditation techniques, mindful drawing, motivational videos, stretching exercises – all with an aim to inspire students to explore different strategies to deal with the constraints that they can then use for themselves.  Our Service Coordinator has been very proactive in providing activities for students to Creatively support Wuhan. Our next steps are to re-launch the friendly Secondary School House Competitions and provide avenues for parent support.

Answers from Allan:

Question 1 Have you been in Shenzhen all the time during the COVID-19 outbreak? As an international educator, do you have any previous experiences similar to the current COVID-19 situation?

Allan Moore: My family and I have been in China for the entirety of the COVID-19 outbreak.  We travelled to Harbin for the first week of the Spring Festival but returned to Shenzhen just as the travel bans and quarantine guidelines went into effect.  We have felt safe during the entire outbreak because of the incredible communication, dedication and efforts of the community to ensure that we stay informed and protected. Our school staff have worked diligently to take care of us and for that we are deeply appreciative. We stayed because we felt there was more risk in travelling than staying where we are.

We have never experienced a situation of this severity but have endured some smaller instances where the community had to come together to endure extreme weather back in Canada. There really is no comparison however in the cost to the people who have suffered during this viral outbreak. 

Question 2 Has life been easy or challenging for you in Shenzhen during the COVID-19 outbreak in terms of meeting essential living needs?

Allan Moore: We have been living on our school campus for the entire time of the outbreak closures. Thanks to the efforts of our school logistics team this has allowed us to have some outdoor activities on our school field and facilities in a safe environment. This has really helped to keep us healthy and happy during the outbreak.

The only difficulty we have faced was finding vegetables in the first few days of the closures but there has been no other challenges we have faced. We do miss the ability to go out to dinner or to experience the many fun activities we do in Shenzhen (sports, hiking, exploring and shopping) but we know that this time will pass and we will be able to do them again soon.

Question 3 What support have you received from your school and the school community during these days?

Allan Moore: Our school has been our source of support and comfort throughout the experience. There has been constant communication and updates about all that we need to know. Important information from the government has been translated for us and there has been a genuine concern for our well-being and safety. The school has been cleaned and disinfected daily for those of us living here and protocols for our protection are followed exactly. The situation has showed the true strength and connection of our community and has made us feel welcomed and valued through their efforts.  

Question 4 We know many international teachers are scattered around the world due to the COVID-19 crisis and there may be a sense of ‘isolation’ among people. How is your school doing in terms of remaining a ‘community’ online during school closure?

Allan Moore: SWIS has stayed connected online and actively uses our communication platforms to continue our work and relationships as a community. In my position as Activities and Athletics Coordinator, communication has been key as planning and preparing the many activities and athletic events is of course difficult during these uncertain times. Staying connected to our leadership team and my peers at the other international schools has not only helped us prepare for what is to come but also to share our feelings and ideas. 

As a parent of two students at the school the online learning experience has been very positive from SWIS. It was impressive to watch our dedicated teachers very quickly adapt to new technology, communication issues, time zone differences and the differing needs of their students. Their dedication, teamwork and positive mindset have been a great help to all of us and made the teaching at home a rewarding experience. It has allowed us to be a bigger part of our children’s learning and given us many insights we didn’t have before.

The social side of our life here has been aided by the many fun discussions and support on WeChat groups, email and online video calls. We have stayed connected with our friends and fellow coworkers at the school and in some ways the experience has strengthened our bonds as we rely on each other for our personal and community well-being. 

Question 5 Do you have any more thoughts or comments that you would like to share with our readers from your COVID-19 experiences?

Allan Moore: Our sincere gratitude….to not only those who are part of our community here at SWIS but to the people and nation of China…being here during this outbreak has given us a new perspective of the culture that is here in this country. The debt that the world owes to all those who have sacrificed, stayed strong and cared for those infected is not recognized enough. The incredible way the community came together to honor the guidelines set for the protection of all has been inspirational. Our hope is that the rest of the world look to the strength of the people of this country rather than find ways to divide and demean.