By Mary Rabbitt
On April 23rd, the Chinese government ordered 1.7 million public school students in Beijing to study at home; universities in Hong Kong ordered teachers and students to wear masks in school; and a giant panda, on loan to the San Diego Zoo, has had its return to China indefinitely delayed. The effects of Severe Accute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) are being felt in Asia and beyond.
The World Health Organization issued a statement on April 28th indicating that SARS cases were expected to grow in China, even as new cases appear to have been contained in Hong Kong, Singapore, Toronto, and Viet Nam. The number of those infected in Beijing multiplied in late April from earlier reports, surpassing 1,200 from less than 350 one week before-accurate reporting of cases had been suppressed in China until the Health Minister and Mayor of Beijing were relieved of their posts.
The full impact of SARS on the global economy is still to be told and will not be known until a cure is found and the epidemic contained. Among those greatly affected in the short-term are the airline and tourism industries; Chinese manufacturers, particularly those that deliver on a "just-in-time" basis to clients in the West; and children in the region, both Chinese and international.
To better understand how international schools in the region were coping with this health crisis, Bennett Educational Resources, a West Chester, Pennsylvania education consulting group conducted a telephone and e-mail survey with international educators at the end of April. The findings revealed extraordinary resilience in respect to how these private, independent schools have risen to the challenges posed by a public health issue of major, and still unknown, proportions.
International schools, by definition, enroll children from many countries coming from multinational companies, the diplomatic corps, and sometimes from the host national population. Likewise, the faculties of these schools include staff members from many nations, English-speaking and otherwise, including from the host nation. Looking at these schools through the lens of international organizations, they are certainly representative of the most global of organizations.
Managing a crisis like SARS with such a constituency means managing personnel of many nationalities and protecting families' most valuable "assets"-their children-in the face of a deadly disease. The policy and procedures manuals have entered uncharted territory for international schools just as they have for so many international companies.
Schools in Hong Kong Temporarily Closed By Government Order
There has been no uniform response of the approximate 30 international schools in China and Hong Kong to this health emergency. On March 26th, the government authority of Hong Kong closed all schools, including the international schools. A similar government order on April 25th by the Chinese government for public schools in Beijing was not adhered to by all international schools in that city. Since the crisis began, the International School of Beijing, a preschool to grade 12 school of over 1,300 students, has closed for just one day to get "systems" into place. These systems included increasing the number and kinds of communications to parents, establishing hygiene routines such as hand-washing rituals, increasing the cleaning and sanitizing of school facilities, upping the number of school nurses and establishing their domains for medical screenings at entrances, etc.
Whether international schools have closed or not, schools surveyed for this article have responded to the health crisis in two major ways: 1) securing the school as a sanctuary; and 2) establishing e-learning networks to maintain academics for students who have been evacuated or are staying home.
Schools As Hygienic Sanctuaries
The measures that schools have taken to secure their facilities as hygienic sanctuaries are remarkable; consider the following notice-typical for the region-to parents taken from the website of the Hong Kong International School (HKIS), a school of 2,492 students, preschool to grade 12:
What are some of the special steps being taken to make sure the schools are clean?
Schools Continue Their Educational Missions
Overall, schools have sought to stay open to continue serving their educational missions. Making reference to the evacuation of nonessential personnel from embassies and companies, Eleanor Jones, director of the Shekou International School in Guangdong Province, told her staff: "We, the school personnel, are essential personnel." Her school has stayed open even as the population of the school dropped from 150 at the end of March to its current 60 students-a 60 percent drop in students. Jones explained that most of the students who left Shekou International under evacuation orders were non-native English speakers returning to other Asian countries such as South Korea. These students did not have the option of immediately enrolling in another international or public school, as American students did if they returned to the U.S. For these students, it was critical that a teaching and learning delivery system be instituted so their academic year could continue uninterrupted. Access the Shekou International website to check-out a posted lesson or two: www.sis.org.cn.
International schools have struggled against these challenges developing, in just days, e-learning or distance learning networks, and thus effectively running two schools simultaneously, one in situ and one via the internet-with the same or fewer staff.
At the HKIS, "Dragonnet," the school's intranet site was already in place when SARS hit. All students have a private account on Dragonnet and thus over the weeks that the school was under forced closure, a 'virtual school' continued with teachers posting assignments and/or emailing them to students-even conducting on-line class 'forums' to replicate class discussions. Since re-opening, HKIS enrollment is back to almost 90 percent.
School personnel, stretched by additional work and stress of the unknown boundries of the disease, have behaved in all of the ways that one might expect in such a situation. The researcher was impressed with how staffs have, for the most part, rallied to make the best of an all-round difficult situation. Consider these personnel issues: teachers who cannot come to school because their children's ayas or nannies are quarantined or the teachers do not feel comfortable having ayas from different parts of the city coming into their homes each day; a school's refusal of all leave without pay requests because of the potential of 'opening the floodgates'; the pregnant teacher who wants leave without pay but resigns because she learns that the treatment of SARS in pregnant women in China causes spontaneous abortion; teachers who ask for dependent travel allowances to repatriate their own children even as they stay at school.
Recently, to alleviate some of the stress of unavailable or inadequate child care for teachers, The International School of Beijing's Administrative Council announced a temporary measure of permitting parents of infants and toddlers to stay home with their children without being charged sick leave or the cost of the substitute teacher. Management under duress always requires careful consideration of policy implications and sometimes such 'one-offs.'
Possibly the most philosophical, and even sanguine, voice heard in the process of this survey came from Sheena MacLeod, an English national who taught in Zambia for eight years before joining the staff of the International School of Beijing six years ago. As perspective, she put forth that tuberculosis is far more rampant in China than SARS with 113 out of every 100,000 people in China estimated to have TB. MacLeod writes: "No one is forced to work overseas, everyone is here by choice, often lured by an attractive salary package or the excitement. You cannot choose these without understanding that you are sacrificing the 'normality' of your home country."
The story of SARS and its effects on lives, families, governments, and the world economy is still being written.
First Published: May 03, 2003