A COVID-19 adventure

On February 3rd 2020, our school closed almost without warning. My family had left home on January 24th in order to take a weeks holiday by the coast in Vietnam with my parents in law who had been visiting us since just before my birthday.

On the last day before the holiday I had attended a meeting where we were told that there was an 80% chance that the campus would not open. By that time there were 5 cases of the virus in our city and the news of the outbreak in Wuhan had been on people’s minds all week.

The day we flew, all of us were already paranoid so that we didn’t leave the house for the day and wore masks all the way to the airport and on the flight to Vietnam.

As the holiday week progressed, we were told that the school would be closed for two weeks but staff needed to be back in school order to deliver online learning. This later evolved to an acceptance that no one would be allowed on campus – a rule brought in by the municipal government.

During the weeks holiday in the last week of January, the situation in China appeared to get worse and worse. We were glued to the BBC news app and watched as the UK FCO closed the local consulates and upgraded their travel advice all the way to do not travel unless it is essential.

Towards the end of that  holiday my wife and I were already worried about going back. With the change in the advice from the UK FCO, the clearly escalating situation, and the stories we were hearing from friends about food being cleared out of the supermarkets, we didn’t feel comfortable heading back but were worried about the stance our school was taking in initially insisting we come back.

Eventually the decision was taken out of our hands as our return flight to China was cancelled as the Vietnamese government took the decision to suspend all flights to and from China.

And so began our first 7 weeks of teaching and parenting away from home and away from school. During that initial 7 weeks we moved from Vietnam to Thailand because our Vietnamese visa was due to expire soon after our holiday and we knew we had 30 days visa free in Thailand as British nationals. Surely 30 days would be enough?

After 30 days we found we were still not going back and so we moved back to Vietnam after some issues surrounding visas which meant an aborted early morning trip to the airport in Chiang Mai.

I am sure that anyone reading this who lives in a house where both parents are working full time and have two children under 5 and has any experience of isolation/social distancing under the current COVID-19 pandemic will instantly understand the pressures that this situation presented. How do you both work full time from home and also look after small children that need constant supervision?

The added difficulty for our family in those first few weeks was that we didn’t know when we would be asked to come back for school reopening. It seems silly to write now, but at the time we thought we would be back to school in a few weeks at most. We didn’t want to be too far from our schools timezone so that we could stay in sync with the school timetable; if we went back to the UK we would conceivably have to teach at night and parent in the day. We also didn’t want to return to our school city because of the FCO advice and the stories we were hearing about the lockdown procedures being implemented in the city.

This left us planning week by week where we going to live as well as having to full time parent and work. Some weeks worked better than others, my wife and I finding a routine for ourselves and the children, even eating in the same local eateries for lunch and dinner. But that very much depended on the amenities that you found yourself with after making a decision to live somewhere based on info!

This continued until early March. All the while the disease appeared to be limited to China, we weren’t expecting a global pandemic based on what we were reading and our school began making plans to get teachers who were stranded outside of China back.

It is amazing how quickly the situation evolved in early March and it’s also incredible how different the picture looks with hindsight. In order to remind myself of the situation I was in I wrote much of this post on the plane back to the UK on March 25th.

In early March, we were informed that the school was planning to reopen and that staff who were not in their home country should aim to come back by the end of March. In order to see how the re-entry process went, the school Principal, who had also been out of China, was to return first and if that was successful the Site Based Leadership Team were to return followed by other “third country staff”.

After a successful return to China where the Principal picked up a direct flight to Chongqing from Bangkok with Lion Air my wife and I booked passage on the same route along with some other colleagues who were also stranded in “third countries”. At the time, in the middle of March, we were living in Hoi An in Vietnam and felt that we could easily get back to Bangkok from there to pick up this direct flight. Our Principal was also able to be picked up at the airport by school HR and taken straight to their apartment to begin their 14 day home quarantine.

Soon after however, it was clear that other staff were having some issues over their flights and it turned out their flights on the same route had been cancelled. Ours were still scheduled as initially Lion Air cancelled flights only to 31st March on that Monday (we had booked on the Sunday night) but by the Friday of that week (20th March) they had expanded that to 30th April.

So the Principal’s experience quickly became obsolete and the plan of having a guinea pig to see how re-entry procedures to China went became obsolete. The Principals return turned out to be the smoothest and easiest of all those who returned because the situation changed so rapidly in the last two weeks of March, when it became clear that the COVID-19 epidemic had expanded into a pandemic.

After our Lion Air flights were cancelled, the only options from Bangkok were via Chengdu or via Guangzhou. There were no flights to China from Vietnam since our original return flights from our holiday on 2nd Feb got cancelled.

When you are living it, a week can be a long time but when you think back on it it can seem very short. Memories become compressed and it’s easy to forget the feelings of anxiety that you live with in slow time when everyday you worry that the situation may change.

That week after we booked our China flights on the Sunday on the same route as the Principal, it seemed quite natural to be able to fly on 27th March so we could have our second week of quarantine in the Easter holiday.

My wife and I had already learned how difficult it was to plan and teach our own classes, deliver our eldest daughters online learning and parent both of the children well all at the same time, so when discussing our return home to China we knew that the only way we could manage a home 14 day quarantine without the distractions of any outside space was to plan the quarantine period in the holidays. We had expressed this desire as soon as we were asked to come back because we had already been having the conversations.

Now in light of our current actions I am sure that some will interpret our reluctance to fly earlier as us not wanting to go back at all. This is not the case but we felt at the time that we had to make the best decision for our two children.

It’s hard to get your feet in someone’s shoes. A colleague expressed concern by telling me why they thought our plan to quarantine at home during the Easter holidays was a bad idea because they felt we wouldn’t get a break. It was hard for them to understand why quarantining in the holidays was going to be the best break we could get! It meant that our children would benefit from not having two parents constantly torn by the demands of their needs the needs of the school. It meant that we would only have one week of work where we were trapped in the house with no outside space and no where to really separate work and play.

Being responsible continually for other people and placing their needs above your own, continually is a very hard thing to understand until you have had to do it.

Two days after booking our initial return flights from Bangkok to China we found the same airline had cancelled our colleagues flights on the same route. This was Tuesday 17th March, only a week after we were told the school plan to get everyone back and four days after the Principal had successfully made it back on the same route.

On Wednesday 18th March we were told by our landlady in Hoi An, that airlines were cancelling flights out of Vietnam. She was concerned about us being able to leave the country. Remember that there were no direct flights from Vietnam to China? Well now there seemed that there was going to be no flights anywhere else.

Faced with the looming realisation that we might get stuck in Vietnam we found our anxiety rising. Particularly as we already had an exit flight back to China from Bangkok. That evening that we got the news from our landlady, we booked an air Asia flight for the coming Saturday from Da Nang to Bangkok.

The next morning we woke up to find that flight cancelled. This was Thursday morning 19th March.

More airlines closing. More panic. We found tickets for a flight leaving to Bangkok a day earlier – leaving on Friday 20th March. It was more dear but we had passed counting coins at this stage. This was also the day that our Chinese nanny, after waiting for weeks for us to come back, resigned so she could find other work.

There’s a pandemic. You are separated from your home nation and from the nation you are resident in. Governments are making last minute announcements. Airlines are cancelling flights. It is hard to stay on top of the information. You live with anxiety constantly about the changes, about what is going to happen. This is on top of already emotionally, mentally and financially challenging “home-work” circumstances that we had lived with for 7 weeks already.

The next morning, Friday 20th March, we woke up to the news from the FCO that Thailand was bringing in new immigration requirements. Our flight was that day and we had no way of meeting the new requirements. We went to the airport with bated breath. Unsure if we would be able to check in. unsure if we would have the correct paperwork. Unsure if we could immigrate into Thailand.

Thankfully checking in went smoothly , although that entire check in procedure and exit from Vietnam was one of the tensest moments of my life. At the airport every flight, bar ours, was cancelled.

When we arrived in Thailand we received news that our Lion Air flight on 2nd April had also been cancelled. After panicing to get out of Vietnam back to Thailand to be able to get our flight back to China we no longer had a flight back to China.

We couldn’t wait around any longer hoping things would work out. We could see that the sand was shifting around us. The travel picture was changing. Immigration requirements were changing. Information you had on one day was obsolete the next.

If we booked a flight there was no guarantee that it would go. Plus because of the increasing expense of flights, we needed to trade off economical flights with leaving as soon as possible, before the situation changed further.

A delay of 24 hours would push prices up further. A delay of 24 hours would leave us more exposed to the risk of sudden changes in flight schedules and immigration policies.

We seriously felt at risk of being trapped in Thailand with our two small children during a global pandemic.

This was a real risk that we couldn’t afford after 8 weeks already of living out of bags while parenting and working.  We had initially packed for a one week holiday. We needed to get home and we needed support with the children so we could focus on work.

We also had no clarity on what the quarantine procedures would entail for us. Our Principal has been able to go straight home and quarantine at home, which would be manageable if we could do it in the Easter holidays but as we saw over that weekend, that rapidly changed. With no direct flights back to our city, there was an increasing chance that teachers would be held in quarantine in hotels in other cities that they flew into. it wasn’t clear who would be responsible for these costs.

We booked refundable flights back to the UK and waited. Over that weekend we began to see the challenges of no direct routes. Flights were available via Guangzhou, Nanning and Chengdu. These were clearly different and by the time recommendations came to not go via Chengdu people had already booked flights on them. Some colleagues ended up being quarantined in a hotel there. We also heard that families were to be separated for the two weeks with the children being quarantined with their mother. By Friday 27th March it was clear that home quarantine was not an option.

It was not the time to wait. We had to make decisions based on the best data we had available. In the future you may look back and think you did the “right” thing, or you may look back and think you didn’t. In the here and now there is just no way of knowing. Often when you look back your perception of the events is changed so it’s important to be clear with yourself in the present moment what your reasons are.

On the plane home on Wednesday 25th March I wrote:

Sitting on this plane I still feel anxious. I am relieved too. Relieved to be getting my kids back into the UK where their grandparents want to see them. Back to the UK where I have been amazed at the deep support network and its ability to collectively find a solution. But I am anxious. For me the anxiety has now changed. No longer anxious about getting trapped. I’m anxious about what my employer will say. I’m anxious that I’ll be jobless and that I’ll lose my bonus. I’m anxious that my actions will damage my career. I’m even anxious that I can’t now access the internet, so accustomed I have become to reading the BBC news hourly, sending and receiving messages like never before. Constantly connected in my hours of panic, I’m now unused to being disconnected.

The day after we returned the UK the Chinese government announced that it was closing its borders to all foreigners except diplomats, a sensible thing to do when individuals and companies were disregarding the governmental advice to limit travel to essential travel only.

On Thursday 26th March the Thai authorities brought in stronger lockdown procedures including road blocks and checkpoints. There was a possibility of further flight cancellations and stronger shut down measures. Those who waited may be forced into being stranded for a long time. If we hadn’t booked our flights back to the UK and rebooked to China we would have been stuck in Thailand and facing the national lockdown there. I am sure we would have managed but it wouldn’t have been great for our two little ones.

Unfortunately, I think that often teachers and school leaders become so focussed on learning, that losing learning time can be the worst thing in the world. Forward planning becomes narrow and very short term, long term planning almost obsolete, or very rare. Maybe it’s worry about accountability to parents. Maybe an inability to think, plan and articulate long term scenarios. Maybe it’s a lack of training.

In this scenario, I wonder if more would have been achieved long term if more time had been taken to adequately train staff in the short term and plan for the long term instead of assuming it would all be over in a few weeks.

Perhaps we should have had a short, medium and long term plan.

It’s easy to say that in hindsight though.

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