In February of this year, Western Academy of Beijing (WAB) was among the first in the world to be plunged into the challenges of unanticipated complete and extended virtual learning. This past April, the school was among the first to come out of all virtual environment and return to on-campus learning. But that doesn’t mean the end of the 2019-20 school year, summer and ensuing fall were easy. Staff there are ready for a break as any of us. Several factors have helped them weather the difficult year — and their success coming out of pandemic mode at least partially, if not fully, may provide a glimmer of hope for schools elsewhere in the world that are looking towards a day when operations return somewhat back to normal.
When Net Assets interviewed Stephen Taylor, director of innovation in teaching and learning, in late February, WAB was still figuring out educational platforms and access, as students, faculty and staff encountered challenges reentering China following the Lunar New Year holiday. Taylor and his family only barely made it back from Indonesia before China’s borders closed completely. At that time, WAB was in the process of hiring for a new position, head of technology and IT, and the new tech lead, Kevin Crouch, pushed up his official start date by months, beginning official duties in April versus August as originally planned, working from the U.S. as visas and restrictions were being worked out.
While WAB was getting by and making the best of it, with a foundation in flexible learning and community belief in the school’s mission, Crouch’s arrival made a world of difference. The school quickly shifted away from older platforms, such as Moodle, and made extensive use of Microsoft Teams, which provided a centralized place for people in different time zones to collaborate and collate relevant conversation threads, files and resources.
Adopting a more resource-heavy application as “home base,” however, meant that a sizable portion of the existing faculty laptops could not handle the increased memory and drive use, being five years old. New laptops had to be purchased and shipped around the world, where faculty were staying for the time being, and then configured remotely, with the tech team located in New Zealand, Switzerland and elsewhere far outside of Beijing. “Somehow it managed to be successful,” reported Crouch. “It would have been more successful in person, but the right applications allowed us to be flexible.”
After establishing productive ways and means to work together synchronously and asynchronously, WAB invested in teachers’ professional development in online learning. It joined Global Online Academy, which helped refine much of its curricular goals while school remained online, and according to Taylor, the time and funds paid off. WAB also chose to delay the start of the 2020-21 school year slightly to allow time for more teachers and students to enter the country – new hires especially had difficulty procuring visas and flights, and had to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival in China — and to provide for more prep time by moving PD days to the start of the year. School holidays in the fall were shortened, with an added long weekend to ensure the same number of “contact days” or school days for students, while trying to ensure “pauses” along the way to recharge.
Even with these measures, when campus opened in fall 2020, a greater portion of students than teachers had made it back to Beijing, which meant there weren’t enough teachers to instruct all students in person for all classes. A saving grace was the infrastructure to manage WAB’s previously scheduled “Day 9” in a regular school week – a day in which the IB school at the secondary level allowed students to choose their own activities rather than follow a set schedule. MyTime, an app developed in-house that allows students to register and track what they were doing, as well as the communal spaces, became useful every day of the week at the start of the 2020-21 school year, at times when students might not have a teacher on campus. If their subject teacher wasn’t in Beijing during the allotted class time, for example, they could go to a lab, engage in online learning or even participate in a different class altogether.
Another aspect of school life that still wasn’t back to normal this fall WAB’s usual open door to parents. Pandemic restrictions in China prohibited parents visiting campus. So the communications department developed a podcast to showcase what was happening in the classroom and communicate to parents the value of the education their children were receiving. It’s still being produced.
Even if parents still can’t see classrooms and spaces as they used to, there is a deep appreciation for pieces of the program that were to some degree taken for granted before the pandemic. “There is a renewed value position in the rich array of activities at WAB,” said Taylor. Extracurricular programs, for example, went “all out” to provide online offerings in the spring while campus remained shut, and have rebooted activities as much as possible accounting for social distancing requirements. While extramural sports are still not allowed, the secondary school held a festival of sports one weekend, where more than 100 students gathered for diverse activities and cheered each other on. WAB students are also engaging in virtual swim meets, where students time their performances and share their results, and WAB has grown more involved in esports as well.
That’s not to say the pandemic hasn’t taken its toll. “When we were largely separated, things took a lot longer to accomplish,” said Crouch. “There was quite a lot of emotional management,” added Taylor. Every meeting among staff or faculty “took twice as long because people needed to connect emotionally” before beginning the agenda. Faculty on campus felt they were working harder due to the reduced number of teachers there, while faculty stranded outside Beijing in far flung time zones did not want to let the side down, reported Taylor. There was also the stress of regular government inspections to ensure the school was obeying all regulations and protocols.
WAB’s motto is “gong he” – translated as “work hard, work together,” and that spirit has been instrumental throughout the year in keeping energy up and creativity flowing. “Now that we’re mostly back, other than tiredness, there is a sense of gratitude,” said Taylor. “We haven’t lost sight of who we are as a school, which might have been easy to do in the online mode.” One indication: faculty and staff are more eager to participate in social events and don’t take those opportunities and connections for granted. “A weight has been lifted,” said Taylor.
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