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February 14, 2020

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Expat teachers stay positive during crisis

FOREIGN teachers at Soong Ching Ling School are doing their part in the fight against the novel coronavirus epidemic in Shanghai, their home away from home.

Sonia Barghani, an American kindergarten teacher, is teaching students how to protect themselves from the virus through cartoons with colorful animation and songs she has created. The first cartoon, “Being Healthy,” covers basic hygiene habits like hand washing.

“The whole idea of the videos came from wanting to help kids who are at home, whether in Shanghai or Wuhan or anywhere,” Barghani said. “I have been an educator for 10 years and my PhD is in Education and Technology, so I had the idea of making fun interactive videos that teach while keeping the students productive. By doing so, we are also preventing them and their families from having to go out. Shanghai is such a wonderful, innovative city, and all my friends know I love it here because it is so friendly, safe and welcoming. I just want to do my part.”

Her videos appear on the kindergarten’s online-education platform, launched to educate children and families during the extended holiday.

Barghani and her husband planned to visit Thailand over the holiday but cancelled the trip after the government advised people not to travel.

“We can travel later, now there are more important factors to consider,” she said. “We later learned the Chinese government had set up provisions to offer full refunds. It is a strong indicator that the government is doing what they should, so I can do my small part.”

The couple’s families wanted them to return to the US, but Barghani said she never considered leaving.

“I am not afraid. It is a virus; a new one, but a virus. The Chinese government has taken substantial steps to prevent it from spreading and I honestly believe Shanghai and China will be OK soon. I do what I can, which is follow good hygiene, avoid going out and wear a mask.”

But mask shortages have become a challenge. She tried to order masks online but delivery was an issue. Fortunately, the school quickly provided her masks when alerted about her difficulties.

“This epidemic could happen anywhere in the world and I was very upset to see the unfair media reports that blame rather than recognize the enormous economic sacrifice and medical efforts that are happening here,” she said.

As the winter vacation for local schools has been extended, Barghani said she will continue making the cartoons. In addition, she’s keeping busy by studying Chinese, trying new recipes, watching movies and calling her family.

The school has 60 foreign teachers and 600 international students and created a special team last month tasked with enabling teachers and students to record their physical conditions and share relevant information.

Nineteen of the school’s foreign teachers remained in Shanghai during the holiday, including Susan Gotthelf, the school’s librarian, and William Hovey, a history teacher.

Via the school’s online platform, Gotthelf has shared a list of expat-friendly health clinics, advice on self-protection during the epidemic and online learning tools and materials.

Hovey, who is Swiss, continues teaching by emailing assignments to his 9th- and 10th-grade students.

“I teach history and global perspectives and some of the initial tasks will involve learning about the virus and related issues,” Hovey said.

Students in his global perspectives class are writing about the virus from personal, national and global perspectives.

“We will look at it in terms of healthcare issues and government responsibilities, and compare different nations’ views,” he said.

Students in his history class are researching the 1918 Spanish influenza and 1980s AIDS epidemics.

Both Gotthelf and Hovey remain confident the situation in China will improve.

“I’m worried in a general sense, but I’m trying to not get too stressed about it,” Hovey said.

He has kept busy during the extended break reading books, watching DVDs, walking his dog, listening to music and creating art.

Gotthelf lives in Shanghai with her 15-year-old daughter, a student at Soong Ching Ling, whose father is visiting Shanghai over the holiday.

“We’ve had a lot of time to be together as a family,” said Gotthelf. “We’ve taken some great walks and been able to see scenes without crowds, which is unusual in Shanghai. We were at the Bund and Nanjing Road, which were very empty. It’s just a different kind of vacation.”

Because the school has provided good information about coping with the virus, she is not afraid.

“I think if we follow the guidelines and good hygiene, we will be safe here,” Gotthelf said.

As many direct flights to Shanghai have been canceled, school officials are trying to help returning teachers reroute their trips.

He Meiyun, the school’s point person for travel arrangements, has been checking information on airlines and designing routes.

“Some teachers in America have decided to go to Los Angeles first to take a flight to Shanghai, while some in Canada will fly from Montreal to Tokyo and then to Shanghai,” she said. “Spanish language teacher Yenny Li had re-routed three times but all the flights have been canceled. However, she is still trying. I’m really touched by the friendship our foreign teachers have shown.”


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