Today’s reflections come from Sam who lives with his wife and three children in Seoul. Sam is British and teaches at an International School in the city. Inhabitants of Seoul are not in lockdown and are living with the new ‘normal’. Are there lessons here for the UK ?
We are fortunate to live in South Korea which has recently made headline news for modelling how to beat the virus. Calls come in from friends, family and school leaders asking how we have done so well. However, flash back to early February and it was a very different story. Then we were second to China for the number of Coronavirus cases and the calls coming in were not to ask for advice but were showing concern for our safety. Should we leave? Return to the UK? Take refuge in another less affected country?
Today I walk the ten minutes to work and chuckle to myself at the drivers, alone in their cars, wearing face masks. They remind me of the fishermen I saw at the weekend, hundreds of metres from each other but nevertheless wearing masks. They are respectful of the collective responsibility felt here.
Does everyone wearing masks feel it helps reduce the risk to themselves? Doubtful, but they wear it like a badge of solidarity. The mask shows you care, not just for yourself but for others, and that we face the challenge together as a community.
South Korea has succeeded thanks to organisation, quick decisive action and a culture that is based on respect, trust and abiding by the rules. We have been fortunate, in Seoul, to avoid a UK styled lockdown.
However, since February there have been changes. Sports events and trips have been cancelled and there have been limitations on large gatherings such as church events. Schools closed to students.
Shops have remained open with no shortages of goods, except for N94 masks for some time, but nothing else. Fewer people are out and about and those that are wear masks. However, even before Covid-19 many people wore a mask if they were ill or the pollution was bad.
Social distancing is maintained and a raft of lower level measures have been brought in such as staggering opening hours for shops and working hours for businesses to avoid overcrowding. There are antiviral covers on all buttons for doors and lifts, freely available sanitizer in every business for anyone and thermal cameras checking the temperatures of those entering every building. Every day we are given reminders about social distancing but this is not policed and there are no sanctions.
The biggest success has been the testing and contact tracing. It has been scary, reassuring and simply mind boggling how effective the alert system here has been. A text on the emergency system, which pre-Covid alerted us to an earthquake, pollution, fires or other threats now boings three to four times a day. It details new confirmed cases and links to a detailed map of where these people have been since contracting the disease. Those who have come into contact with the new cases are called in for testing and isolation.
In a country with technology at its heart, teachers have successfully been able to deliver E-learning to students in their homes for the past twelve weeks. Fast internet service is the norm and students from Grade 4 onwards have laptops. My school is able to offer synchronized teaching for 50% of lessons. The other 50% of lessons offer students work off-line with opportunities to collaborate in small groups and to ask teachers questions. Teachers are also able to have one to one tutorial sessions with individual students.
I am very proud of how the school community has come together and succeeded in the transition to on-line home learning. There have, as in any venture, been successes and failures, but reflection, adaptation and problem solving have and always will be in a teacher’s arsenal along with the dogged determination that a crisis needs.
Do we all want students back in school? Absolutely. Students, parents and teachers are desperate for it. But can E-learning succeed? Absolutely with the infrastructure, enthusiasm, knowledge and dedication of the whole school community. This is no different from how a school succeeded in the pre-Covid world.
In closing, when our time comes to leave Korea what I hope permeates into my children from Korean society is respect for others, trust in each other, (both top down and bottom up) and the calm, methodical approach to a crisis.