2022 started with so much promise. We dared to dream that we might get home for Summer. The Winter Olympics were on their way, we were heading to Naked Water #stillinsuzhou for Chinese New Year.
We had had a boarding Chinese New Year dinner – albeit at school, but when there is a budget for a buffet, our caterers can provide. The students were amazed and grateful and for the staff – time to let hair down. In boarding many of the students chose to do door signs for luck to bring in the Chinese New Year and I was guided to do one for our door, based on the simplest characters, several months ago I knew what it said, but I have had other things on my mind since that night.
Every year, companies jump on 11.11. In China, Armistice Day is not a thing, here it is singles day, a Chinese version of Black Friday if you will. A day of sales. And opportunistically Naked, our luxurious resort of choice was having a massive sale. So… why wouldn’t we.
On our day of arrival it snowed, which gave a magical air to it and with a hot tub – it would have been rude not to indulge. Cooking is what we do best and as Lady G likes to say, we are the best restaurant in Suzhou.
That was the last holiday we had until term ended on 17 June 2022. If we had known now what would be about to happen, I may have stayed there forever and buried my head. But for whatever reason that isn’t in my nature. And whatever kept me going for the next 4 months was sheer determination. One of my former colleagues once said to me the fact that you get dressed each morning and show up shows that you haven’t given up. Even the midwife on our first home visit after Eleanor was born was surprised that I was up and dressed. I just do it. My sense of letting other people down, and, I guess, myself is too great.
13th February- a Sunday. The majority of boarding students came back. Suzhou then confirms 4 cases but not until after 9pm. Directive to teach online. The messages had been initially that one staff member was unable to leave her compound due to testing, and then other messages started that other staff couldn’t leave their compounds because people were found to be possibly close contacts of close contacts.
The message then came in that we didn’t know how long closures would be for, and to send the boarding students home. An easy message to receive. Not such an easy task.
14th February- we managed to get two of our boarding houses closed. But over 80 students remained.
In the main, the students we had were good, we still had catering coming in, and we could use the staff from the other boarding houses – that was until 2 days later we woke up to find the night staff still on duty. The day staff had been in compounds that had closed. The dining staff were in compounds that had closed, and those that were coming up to boarding from our other houses, were caught up in someone being a close contact – not in our boarding houses but in the compound that surrounded the off site boarding house. Our on site boarding facility was now on its own. However, we weren’t on our own. The team rallied together, restaurants were found across the road that were still open (2 to be exact – and no McDonalds or Starbucks) one looked cleaner than the other so we ordered a ton of food for lunch.
In a way that was easier, no longer were we cajoling 80+ teenagers out of the boarding house to go to the dining hall three times a a day but equally there were definitely some teens that that would have been their only intake of fresh air from boarding to the dining hall.
We were now also responsible for getting students to class on time. Getting an entire boarding house out for school in the morning is relatively simple. You will always get people who are late, but in the main they are out and in school and during the day they are someone else’s responsibility. Now, boarding staff were responsible for them all the time. With no respite. We were making sure they were dressed, sitting at their desks, awake, being fed, awake, not on their beds, on task, awake… we were their parents ensuring that they were online learning and we were responsible for their well-being – mental and physical.
With the curve ball of fewer staff and no cooking staff, I was amazed to have a member of staff from the next door school move in, she left her family behind and moved in. I will forever remember the day of seeing Nancy walk across the car park with her suitcase. Together with the other boarding staff we oversaw guards, ayis and catering staff move in. Slowly we got into a routine having had to do multiple rotas and taking into account that we had staff who weren’t full time boarding staff. Food was delivered from other staff who went shopping for us all and that was an immense undertaking at a time when nothing was certain for anyone.
Some students realised that living in boarding with restrictions was not all they thought it would be, and they went home. We had to provide car registration number plates, confirmation of who had collected the students and copies of their green su kang ma. (QR code telling us that they were healthy and hadn’t been in any medium or high risk areas)
We weren’t certain for how long we could get people out, and some who wanted to leave couldn’t return home as their parents compounds were locked down. Some students were staying because their parents thought it was safer in boarding and some stayed because they had younger siblings at home or their friends were staying. Others stayed because there was no alternative for them.
New skills and new foods were realised, French Toast was made, pancakes flipped and dumplings boiled and we had an impromptu maths lesson when we ordered pizza.
Here is an article we wrote at the time.
On 5th March Suzhou hit 0 cases and suddenly we were told that we could open up school which we did the following week. It was staggered with students arriving in on Tuesday 8 March and 9 March. And just as suddenly as we had closed, we reopened.
And then the weekend happened. It was the first weekend that we had freedom. Boarding staff and students could leave campus. Some staff went home to see their families. Others took advantage of the glorious weather and saw friends and went for a massage.
On Sunday evening there were cases local to us, but boarders arrived, though sadly one boarding staff member who had gone to see his wife and child would not be back on campus until June.
We all went to bed on 12th March in ignorance. At 05:46 on Monday 13 March a member of staff posted a notification. We were back online.
A few staff came into school and helped us get the majority of boarders home. We were left again with around 70 boarders. Some students who had done the first lockdown were the first to leave. This time we immediately housed guards, ayis and kitchen staff. We were not taking any chances. Another rota was drafted and on we went.
As March marched on we got everyone into a routine. And then we changed the school calendar and brought the April holiday forward by a week. No online learning and still responsible for students. No holiday for boarding staff, no opportunity to leave campus. But the good news was that we were down to 29 students and those of us that were on duty worked a rota that meant we had some days were we weren’t student facing.
We opened again in April. Though I am hazy as to when. I do know that we closed again after a couple of days but we jumped up to 117 students who wanted to do their mocks face to face rather than online. These students some hadn’t been in lockdown before but were boarding students, others were day students who just wanted to be in school to do their assessments. With no idea when we were going to be open again I churned out another rota.
This time we were joined in boarding by the Head of Year 10, the librarian, and two exam officers and two nurses. For the first week the only contact we had with the nurses was for testing, but after we had been closed for a week we began to meet them more including making lemon cake, soda bread and chocolate brownies.
In the midst of all this, I lost 4 members of boarding staff due to hospital runs for students who had to have tetanus and rabies injections due to an illegal tenant in boarding. We were told that anyone who had been out couldn’t come back for a week and so I had to tell these staff members to leave.
The cat was taken away by a year 13 student who had it adopted and vaccinated etc. but this kitten came to us in February when scavenging for food during lockdown, but as a stray feral cat he liked to scratch and we couldn’t take any chances. Students were also not great at following instructions of “leave the cat alone”.
The other creature that we adopted was the biology bird, Tater. She kept us company in the office and was rather vocal during zoom meetings and first thing in the morning.
65 in school tests from 14th February to 10 June in sunshine, rain, cloud and cold.
Eventually we had the last 4 weeks in school altogether, all 3 boarding houses open, all staff back. Opening, closing, data collection, testing and keeping everything and everyone going.
The team and our families were superb. On a few occasions when I had to deliver news that no longer could we even get deliveries or go across the road to Starbucks or Family Mart I felt physically ill. None of it was my idea and I was just carrying out instructions but news affecting people’s liberty because of the job they do or who their family is – just sucks.
When we did go back to school, colleagues said “we didn’t go out of our apartment either, you weren’t missing much” and that was really triggering. They chose to stay in their apartment and while we didn’t see restrictions that some other cities have seen they could stay in the PJs if they wanted, they were only making sure them and their own kids (if they had any) were fed and they made online learning.
The really resilient people in all of this are the team and my family (and the other families living in boarding). Last week Eleanor was praised for her commitment, contribution and her ever smiling disposition through online learning. Her parents might have been climbing the walls and been frustrated but she showed none of that. That is incredible.
So having said goodbye to the last boarders on 17th June, I am now on holiday. We have come back to Naked Water and just doing this blog has had some triggers for me. But having committed it to this blog – it is over. I have learnt and developed a lot, and the team has developed a lot too. There is no Professional Development that could have equipped me to deal with everything from the last 4 months. The emotional and physical battery was definitely low, but day by day we are rebuilding it.
Forgive me – I have not read back on this blog. This was one I wanted to get done for the history books I suppose.