There’s no playground or lunch bell at this school, but some 8,000 kilometres from Beijing, Angela Steinmann and Jaima Holland are preparing for another day of class.
From the confines of a renovated Queenslander in Brisbane’s northern suburbs, the pair have found themselves grappling with the residual impacts of the coronavirus crisis: school shutdowns.
Angela is the elementary school principal at Western Academy of Beijing (WAB), where Jaima is a physics teacher and Grade 9 mentor.
As the Chinese New Year rolled around in late January, the pair — like “50 per cent of our staff and students” — left the capital to travel overseas, opting to holiday in the Philippines.
Then, the outbreak occurred.
Angela is the elementary school principal at the Western Academy of Beijing, where Jaima is a physics teacher and Grade 9 mentor. (Western Academy of Beijing)
“At the beginning of the holidays [Chinese authorities] announced that schools would be closed, so we had to very quickly make a plan of action to begin online learning when we came back a week later,” says Angela.
“Rather than quickly return to China, we decided there wasn’t really any need for it. We weren’t going back to school, so a decision was made that students and teachers could operate from wherever they were.”
With friends and family in Brisbane, the pair returned to Australia (“The internet connection here is better than the Philippines,” Jaima quips), where they have spent much of the year navigating the ups and downs of their new classroom.
They are now almost finished the sixth week of delivering an online learning curriculum to 1,400 WAB students aged from 3-18 who represent the many cultures and nationalities who attend this international school for expatriate children.
‘We went from zero to full-on in a week’
As authorities work to contain the spread of COVID-19, more than 290 million students across the globe have been disrupted by school closures (much to the chagrin of parents).
While China was the only nation mandating closures some three weeks ago, as of the beginning of March, at least 22 countries in three different continents had followed suit in announcing or implementing contingency plans of their own.
It means schools have had to pivot to an online curriculum, as they stare down the barrel of an uncertain future.
Using online applications like Zoom, Skype and WeChat, teachers set the usual daily course work for their students. (ABC News: Bridget Judd)
As if the transition wasn’t hard enough, the Western Academy of Beijing, an international school in the north of the city, has been forced to confront another hurdle: many of their more than 150 staff, who had been overseas on holidays when the outbreak occurred, remain in all corners of the world (“We have people in Europe, America, Asia, Australia — everywhere,” Angela says).
“We all follow Beijing time, so the time zone has been the trickiest one,” she adds. “It has been a huge challenge; we went from zero to full-on in a week.”
Using online applications like Zoom, Skype and the Chinese social media app WeChat, teachers set the usual daily course work for their students, interspersed with parent workshops, forums and teacher staff meetings.
It is very much business as usual (“Our swimming teacher, for example, is still doing swimming lessons online,” Angela says), but that is not to say there have not been challenges.
Despite being stuck in different corners of the world, staff still have weekly meetings.
(Supplied: Angela Steinmann)
“In any classroom you’ve got a range of abilities. Not just academic abilities but self-management abilities, the ability to make sure they’re engaged and can organise themselves,” Jaima says.
“And when you go into an online learning platform, suddenly that range becomes so much larger.”
In the case of WAB’s multicultural student body, a range of English-language skills, particularly among younger pupils, add another layer of complication into the mix.
“The real difficulty of [taking lessons online] was, how are we going to do this to accommodate the needs of such a diverse range of students, but do it in a way that’s relatively streamlined?” Jaima says.
So what does an average day look like?
For Angela and Jaima, communication and engagement with both students and parents has been paramount in ensuring they do not slip “through the cracks”.
The wider community is acutely aware of the predicament they are facing, and until the school closures are lifted, students and staff simply don’t have any other options.
But while online learning may be part and parcel of modern life, the pair are quick to admit that the transition to a virtual classroom has been a matter of trial and error.
“At first I thought, this will be great, we’ll just post one email for the week and it’s not too overwhelming,” Jaima says.
“It was the opposite, students felt overwhelmed because they were getting a weeks’ worth of work for each class and it was just too much.”
The school has used this feedback to hone its approach.
Students are given their weekly coursework each Monday, and are then tasked with devising a timetable for the days ahead (“For example, when are they Zooming with their teachers?” Angela says).
Teachers also upload a video of themselves every morning, welcoming students into the new day and outlining their daily tasks, which have already been posted online.
An example of the course material posted online for students at the Western Academy of Beijing.
(Supplied: Angela Steinmann)
“Every class in elementary has a class blog, all children also have their own blogs, so if they have to do work, they can take a picture or upload it to the blog, so their parent and teacher can give feedback,” says Angela.
“I spend a lot of time just in correspondence, checking in with students, tracking students, giving feedback, communicating with mentors and counsellors if you feel a student is getting too far behind,” adds Jaima.
Virtual classrooms in use in Australia
While Australia has so far been largely immune to the brunt of the crisis, the premise of online learning is not an entirely foreign concept.
Classes have already been cancelled in New South Wales, while similar scenes have been observed in Victoria, as more people test positive for coronavirus.
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In anticipation of further closures, the NSW Education Department has confirmed it is working with its major IT providers to create virtual classrooms so teachers can provide work to students over the internet.
This technology is already in use at Epping Boys High School, which is using Google Classroom across all year groups and subjects to provide daily online lessons for students in self-isolation. At Willoughby Girls High School, also in Sydney, students have access to lessons and content from Edmodo and Google Classroom.
While Queensland is yet to be affected by school closures, its education department has also confirmed it has “online learning materials and virtual classroom capability that can be used by schools where appropriate to support sustained curriculum delivery”.
But should Australian schools have to transition to online learning in the event of a shutdown, it’s may not mimic the experience of Beijing’s WAB.
Should Australian schools have to transition to online learning in the event of a shutdown, it may not mimic the Beijing experience. (ABC News: Elise Pianegonda)
“The technical infrastructure in public schools just doesn’t exist,” says Dan Hogan, a public school teacher.
“You’d be lucky to find a public school in the country where each student in a class of 30 has a device like a tablet or a laptop. They always have to be shared between two, or three, or more.”
‘There are equity and access issues’
Australia has one of the largest resource gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged schools in the OECD, while research has found the gap between high and low socioeconomic high schools is widening.
Should schools be forced to pivot to an online curriculum, some fear this education divide could become more pronounced.
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“There are many students, either because of the failure of infrastructure in their community or the socioeconomic status of individuals where they don’t have access to a computer or suitable device, who will be unable to get access to any virtual learning spaces,” says Kevin Bates, president of the Queensland Teachers Union.
“I’m also concerned that the sort of work we would be expecting people to pick up would involve a set of teaching materials that many teachers have never used.
“There are equity and access issues, and there are issues associated with the practicality of having 40,000 teachers familiarise themselves with the curriculum documents and effectively deliver a program for students in such a short timeframe.”
While teachers have always used technology as an “integrated part of their daily work”, the NSW Teachers Federation says, delivering an entire school curriculum on online platforms will not be able to occur overnight.
“That will require the department to provide additional resources in the areas of IT, in terms of accessibility of course across the state,” says senior vice-president Amber Flohm.
“But also in professional learning, that’s not something that could be rolled out across the state overnight.”
What can Australia learn from the overseas experience?
Jaima concedes the transition to online learning was aided by their “incredibly well-resourced” school, which had already purchased online learning platforms and software for teachers to use in classes prior to the coronavirus outbreak.
But being able to streamline those tools, and ensuring teachers were competent in them, was a learning curve in and of itself.
Jaima says the school had already purchased online learning platforms and software for teachers to use in class. (Western Academy of Beijing)
“We’ve had teachers teaching teachers sessions, because some teachers are more IT savvy than others,” Angela says.
“Everyone has had to upskill in certain programs just to get them up and running. And that includes kids and parents as well.”
With no end in sight, Angela and Jaima are looking towards the year ahead.
There are senior exams to plan for, and other milestones they need to take into consideration, should their new classroom become a longer-term fixture.
So what can Australia learn from their experience?
“Look after each other, check in with your colleagues. It’s going to be difficult, but persevere and stick with it,” says Jaima.
“Don’t underestimate the importance of connecting with others. The isolation is really hard to deal with,” adds Angela.
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