My son, Sam, and his wife, Jennifer, live and teach at an international school in South Korea. Since January, when the first coronavirus case was detected in that country, I’ve been obsessed with COVID-19 news.
Sam and Jennifer thought about leaving and came close, but then decided to stay put.
I asked them this week to share their experiences and observations as they deal with daily life and the shift from teaching in front of a classroom to online lessons.
What particularly struck me was their comments about the Koreans’ attitude about the common good and looking out for others.
We have just completed our third consecutive week of distance learning, although we also had a week of distance learning prior, followed by one week of in-person teaching before this stint.
It has been a steep learning curve for all involved — students, parents and caregivers, teachers, administration and other faculty. We have to look at the situation as not being anything that any of us asked for or hoped for, but we have all come together to try to provide the best education to our students under the circumstances. There has been a mix of emotions as we struggle forward in our different roles and sometimes multiple roles. I feel that in a way, we have come together and feel closer at times, even in a period that we cannot be physically close. It indeed takes a community to raise — and educate — a child.
If I look at it through a glass half-filled perspective, it has allowed me to grow my tech skills. It was no longer a choice or question of if I had enough time in the day, but it became an obligation. Luckily we are at a one-to-one school where my grade two students all have their personal iPads and South Korea has some of the best internet connectivity in the world. It has also allowed our students to grow their independence, problem-solving, resiliency, and ability to follow multi-step directions.
I have probably been one of the more precautious people and have chosen to limit going out. I order our groceries online and canceled my dentist appointment, as it was not necessary at this time.
When the air quality is good, I go on walks in our local park and try to keep distance between myself and others. Occasionally I go to our school gym. I try to be mindful of cleaning the equipment thoroughly and not touching my face when I work out. I also try to wash my hands frequently and use hand sanitizer.
When the numbers of patients were low in South Korea, I was going to the grocery and trying to keep distance between myself and others — around 6 feet, which is not always possible.
Many people in our community continue to live life normally — shopping, frequenting restaurants, ordering food, going to the movies and coffee shops, etc. Everyone has their own ideas of safety and what they are comfortable with, as well as what they may need to do to safeguard their immediate family and the larger community.
Time at home
Most of my time at home is spent looking at my screen to give synchronous lessons, record lessons, plan lessons, give feedback and next steps to students, and provide parent and student support.
Now that we have gotten into a rhythm, we try to keep a regular schedule of getting up and getting ready for our workdays with breaks to cook lunch and dinner, a little relaxation at night, usually walking and working out, and partaking in a Netflix series we are watching — and then back to plan the next day’s lessons before bed.
Other than work, I have recently gotten into puzzles. I also have a stack of books that I’m working my way through. I have begun cooking and baking outside of my usual repertoire. We would cook before, but also order in or go to restaurants, so necessity is driving my creativity.
I am also connecting more with friends and family across the globe as we navigate this experience together, including my cousin in Hong Kong who was in on the beginning of this trajectory and those in the States who are where we were a month ago in their conceptualization of what life is about to become.
Government & health care
I think what is happening in South Korea may look scary from abroad as the numbers are high. But the part that outsiders do not see is how organized the South Korean government is in addressing this, and the fact that there have been prior epidemic experiences, and it’s a culture that values collectivism over the individual.
South Korea has been efficient in approving and producing the test kits, having a six-to-24-hour test result turn-around time, and making the tests affordable. Our drive-through COVID-19 testing centers are quick and cut down on the rates of further community transmission.
We have websites and government text messages that send out the traveled paths of diagnosed patients so you can self-quarantine or get tested if you think you were exposed.
Korea is big on face masks as a social courtesy — you never know who may have it and be asymptomatic. There are apps that show which pharmacies have face masks still available. The government has put in place mask-purchasing limits of two per week per person and a purchasing system according to your birth year. For example, I could go on a Thursday to buy my masks.
On March 14, I also watched a translation of the live South Korean government briefing on COVID-19.
The interesting part was when they mentioned that the South Korean community has participated in civil awareness and proactive participation that has helped us reduce our numbers, thanked everyone, and encouraged continued vigilance and efforts.
There is a slowdown in numbers, but we cannot let our guard down. They requested that we continue to refrain from engaging in outdoor activities, refrain from meeting people outside of homes, and refrain from mass gatherings held in indoor spaces.
My advice would be to take the situation seriously. This would include buying some basics to have on hand — non-perishable food items, cleaning supplies, basic medicines, and perhaps refills on any prescription medications. Not to panic-buy, but have some basics. Have your emergency contacts on hand. Get some things to keep busy at home and begin to practice social distancing.
This affects not just an individual and a family, but your actions can affect everyone you come into contact with and your communities. If we start to live our lives a bit differently for the time being, it could have great positive effects on the ability of the United States health care system to handle the caseloads.
We need to make sure to reach out to those in our communities who might need help, be unable to get groceries, or be more affected by this situation. We need to be sure to check in with our loved ones because this is indeed a weird new world we are in, and we need to figure out how to deal with it.
It can be stressful as it feels unreal to be watching this unfold in real-time. Life can feel like it is coming to a halt; everything is being affected. Counseling hotlines have opened up in Korea to help people deal with this isolating situation.
I would also recommend sticking to a daily routine if you are at home, and perhaps incorporating exercise, yoga or meditation. There are a number of mindfulness apps and also others that help with anxiety. Find the resources that can help you keep going, and keep talking to your friends and family!
It has definitely been a journey. As we move into week four of distance learning, we are doing things much differently than we did the first week.
Thanks to video conferencing platforms, we’ve been able to meet students “face-to-face” several times a day. In the early days, I was giving a lot of remote feedback on projects and work, but it wasn’t having the desired effect. However, now by doing live lessons, conferencing with small groups, and checking in with them in what we call Morning Meetings and Closing Circles, it feels more like school. We’re lucky we’re so connected. It’s a confusing time. Staying present with students is key.
To stay sane and get vitamin D, we have been going on walks in the city park across the street. We keep a healthy distance from people out there and wash our hands immediately when we come home. We don’t use public transportation right now.
I have access to our school fitness center, and I’ve been going there several times a week. The school is virtually deserted, and it’s been cleaned constantly.
Time at home
It’s amazing what you can get used to. I was going stir crazy the first week and a half, but you adapt and settle into a routine.Staying busy with teaching helps. We’ve been cooking at home and not going to restaurants or getting take-out delivered.
I’m slowly amassing a home gym to counteract hours of sedentary-style teaching.
Government & health care
Initially, it was concerning to be sitting at home and see the number of confirmed cases jump 500-plus a day. Escape was tempting. There were several times when we almost bought tickets to California. Now I’m glad we decided to stay put.
With its high population density, South Korea didn’t have the luxury of not taking this outbreak seriously. With its fast, efficient testing capabilities, transparency and modern medical infrastructure, we could be in one of the safest places to ride out COVID-19.
My advice aligns with what you’ve been hearing from the experts: Don’t panic but take it seriously. Everyone has their own level of comfort with daily activities.
However, this is a time to think of other people. In Korea, collective responsibility is ingrained into the cultural psyche, and living here for more than a decade, putting my wants aside for the good and health of our community has become more second nature.