Not Your Average Classroom

By Ailan Gates 2020-06-22 15:52:51

Shanghai families discuss adapting to e-learning and the nervous excitement of returning to school

The whole world is uniting to fight a common cause, and that means trying to define what the new normal is in our every- day behaviour. Governments are having to commission strict rules on isolation, quarantine and lockdowns, with mandatory stay at home policies enforced across the globe. Schools, universities, businesses, government departments, restaurants and public transportation closed overnight. Social distancing became the norm. People were expected to stand two metres apart in public. Face masks turned into the latest fashion accessory, and wash- ing hands while singing to the tune of ‘happy birthday to me’ twice over, became an accepted part of our lives.

In the midst of the pandemic, all schools were closed at lightning speed in order to protect the welfare of our children. This unprecedented crisis forced schools to quickly change their teaching models from a traditional education to some form of e-learning on multiple platforms like Zoom, blackboard, and Microsoft Teams - just to name a few.

Mums and dads had their roles transformed overnight into that of parent and teacher, throwing them into a scenario wherein order to best support their children they had to work hard to understand not only what the children were learning but also how to navigate various e-learning platforms. In the beginning, there were numerous teething problems, from adapting and adjusting to different time zones, having no Wi-Fi, poor connection or bandwidth, and a lack of technological devices to use as families were stuck outside their home countries thanks to abrupt travel bans.

Now that parents are playing a much more central role in their children’s education, I was eager to find out how they and their children steered their way through the COVID-19 period and what challenges they encountered. In my search, I was lucky enough to interview three wonderful Shanghai families about their overall experience.

Building Routines
Chrisje Sepmeijer and Derk Rietveld, doctors at Shanghai United Hospital, decided to send their two sons, Joppe (14) and Taeke (12), back to Holland right after the Lunar New Year in late January, as they felt that with their workload their children would fare better being homeschooled by their grandparents. The children’s grandfather, a retired professor, instantly jumped to the challenge, having an innate interest in education, and quickly became acquainted with the schools learning management system, ‘Managebac’ - a learn- ing platform where teachers and students can upload tasks and assignments.

Chrisje smiles and says, “What was meant as a nice holiday with grandparents quickly became an intense homeschooling experience for all involved”. The boys’ grandfather would eagerly start every morning by familiarising himself with the children’s daily tasks. Joppe and Taeke’s schedule would begin with studies at 9.30am, have a brief break at 11am for hot chocolate, then continue until 1pm for lunch. If they needed to, they would continue right after lunch but would end their day by going into the woods to climb trees and run around. What bliss!

Nitika Bedi, wife to Sumeet Chander and mother of two boys Ragnav (14) and Madhav (12), states that “some days were easier than others”. Her boys disliked being cooped up at home and missed hanging out with their friends and playing outdoors; Madhav, in particular, missed playing soccer. Both children would fluctuate daily from saying, “The same things take so much longer at school!”, to, “This is so hard!”.


When asked, ‘What was your routine like?’, Cathy Mangonot, mother of Ewan (16) and Line (12), and her husband Emmanuel say that they decided at the very beginning that both children would continue to follow their usual school schedule. She would wake both children up between 7 and 8am and encourage them to start their schoolwork between 8 and 9am. They would then stop at 12pm and sit as a family for lunch. After lunch, the children would relax by watching TV or playing video games until 1.30pm when they would resume their schoolwork until the afternoon.

Nitika’s family, however, had a more flexible, easy flowing schedule. The children would wake up and start their schoolwork before breakfast. They would then have breakfast and work through until late lunch. On easier days, schoolwork would end there but on heavier workload days, schoolwork would spill over into the early evening.

Crucial Distractions
During the quarantine period, Nitika encouraged both Raghav and Madhav to exercise every day, from doing push-ups, yoga, jumping jacks to anything that would keep the boys moving. She even says, “that exercise helped in keeping them all sane through those stressful days”.

Chrisje enrolled her two boys into a local international swimming club whilst in Holland as her boys were becoming increasingly irritable with each other. Perhaps it was from some form of cabin fever as her boys were used to swimming every day in Shanghai. The boys trained with a group of mixed nationalities three times a week which was a welcome relief to her and a joyous time for the boys as well.

Navigating Online Learning
As parents acclimatised to their new ‘teacher’ roles, communication with educators, school administrators, and IT departments became a necessity. It was imperative that parents and students received a clear understanding of the online learning pedagogy from teachers at the beginning in order to have a successful transition from traditional classroom learning to e-learning. Nitika says that her boys found e-learning a bit of a “mixed bag” experience.

“Some days assignments were finished faster at home than at school and other days it was so difficult.”

Cathy, like Nitika, encouraged her children to work independently. Cathy and her husband Emmanuel would assist only when needed as they both wanted to keep to the status quo and stay in line with the French school’s curriculum and expectations.


With e-learning, frequent feedback, comments, and emails were vital between teachers, parents and students as it helped to provide a more effective and fluid learning experience for the children. More importantly, virtual learning was foremost in keeping students focused, motivated, and studying.

Zoom has become one of the most talked-about and most widely used platforms for communication, learn- ing, and sharing - even in China. All forms of classes used zoom, from the much-demanded exercise classes such as yoga and piyo, to the more substantial global business meetings that are still needed throughout this difficult period. Zoom enabled people to stay connected and continue online classes. It also staved off loneliness by allowing people to connect easily without disruptions, glitches, and time delays. For a lot of students, virtual classes, live chats, and video calls were necessary in keeping the human connection alive and providing students with a feeling of togetherness instead of learning alone. I should have bought stocks in Zoom, haha – no, really, I should have. Can you even still purchase Zoom stock?

Nevertheless, being sequestered at home was certainly the most difficult aspect to this Coronavirus crisis. Nitika states that, “some days we wished we could see other people instead of just each other all the time.” The negative aspects of feeling isolated was something most teachers addressed and some took the time to not only check in on their students’ academic progress, but also on their general welfare.

After three and a half weeks, and the fortuitous opening of her schedule, Chrisje flew back to Holland to be with her boys. Even though the children were now staying with her, Chrisje still continued to send them to the grandparents for their daily learning.

The Fortunate and Frustrating Flipsides of Family Quarantine
On the flip side to being sequestered, staying at home with family members was without a doubt a luxury and an opportunity that most families will never forget and will cherish forever – a sentiment that Cathy agrees with wholeheartedly. Although her children missed the social aspect of school like seeing and catching up with their friends while having lunch, Ewan and Line loved spending time together as a unit at home. It also didn’t hurt that they had ample time to do their schoolwork each day. Cathy jokes that the only issue for her having the children at home all day was not knowing what to cook for lunch. “It was more work, having to organise all meals at home plus having to help with homework when needed,” agrees Nitika. Children are normally at school during lunchtime, which does make me wonder where all the microwave dinners went that were all so popular in the 80s.

A definite positive element that has come from homeschooling, has been the ability of keeping up-to-date with what our children are learning about in school. Cathy and Emmanuel now have a much better understanding of their children’s studies. They have also been given additional insight into their children’s strengths as well as the difficulties they face at school. Chrisje and Derk were initially concerned that once they brought the boys back to Shanghai that their difficulties would increase. Without their grandfather overlooking their studies, the boys, especially Taeke, had to learn how to be an independent learner. If they needed help, Chrisje and Derk would support them when they returned from work in the evenings, or if necessary, over video calls in between patient appointments. Only when their homework was completed were the boys allowed to play Fortnite (if you haven’t heard of this online game you’re incredibly lucky) with friends.

Maintaining Schedules
All three families agree that sticking to a regular school schedule wasn’t too difficult so long as they followed these recommendations set by various international schools:

  • Take regular breaks whilst studying • Make time to socialise
  • Eat healthily
  • Remember to drink water regularly • Stick to an appropriate sleep schedule
  • Set daily and weekly goals
  • Limit distractions by turning off technology and avoiding social media when studying

I wasn’t at all surprised by Cathy’s response to the question; ‘What projects did you do with the children?,’ which comprised of Ewan and especially Line enjoying quality time with Cathy in the kitchen cooking and baking.

Chrisje and Derk felt lucky as they had a few things that needed to be done in the house which helped to rid their boys of excess energy and to stave off learning fatigue. Besides walking their two adorable dogs a few times a day, cooking, and having meals together, the boys made an outside dining table from recycled products which they use every day. A real gem and a wonderful souvenir of their time in quarantine.

Back to Life, Back to Reality
As the number of new and current Coronavirus cases in China are minimal, regulations have begun to ease. Schools are slowly beginning to open, albeit, with strict regulations, businesses are returning to normal, work is starting up, and people are allowed to mingle in small numbers. At the time of writing this article, so far only Grades 4 to 12 will be allowed to return to school, with students returning in a staggered order over the coming weeks. This is done to ensure the safety of all students and teachers and to allow the transition to move with ease.

Nitika remarks, “it’s been better lately since we can go out a little more.” Chrisje confirms that even her boys have started to socialise more by playing basketball and swimming with friends. Once Cathy’s children are finished with schoolwork they go out to meet friends, exercise, play board games, or even bake in the kitchen. All in all, family life is beginning to return to some form of normalcy.

School & Classrooms – Post-Coronavirus
As students will sit independently one metre apart from one another in classrooms, donned in their face masks, our children’s learning environments are sure to look and feel different. Before schools were allowed to reopen, the Shanghai Government insisted that all school premises were to be disinfected and cleaned on a continual basis, and that students were to be reminded to sanitise their hands continually throughout the day. Student temperatures will be taken upon boarding their school bus in addition to arriving at school. Students will then need to show a “green” health code on their phones and be expected to walk through thermal scanners before being allowed entry to their well-ventilated classrooms – all essential and critical prevention measures if we are to avoid triggering a second wave of Coronavirus infections.

What are you looking forward to about getting back to school?
Madhav and Raghav can’t wait to have normal lessons again in school, playing soccer, and hanging out with friends. Joppe and Taeke are looking forward to having a more active social life - although they’re a little uncertain about the strict regulations with regards to school and the boys are not sure if, “it will be back to the school they are hoping for,” says Chrisje. Ewan and Line can’t wait to see all their friends.

Preparing Children for Their Imminent Return to School
All three mums believe that staying healthy, staying safe, and staying positive should be the chief and primary focuses. Going over the new school rules with their children, preparing healthy snacks, and reminding them to sanitise their hands, wear their masks, and reinforcing the fact that adapting to this new landscape may be overwhelming but is ultimately necessary.

As life returns from lockdowns and travel restrictions, and communities slowly come back to the hustle and bustle of our daily routine, it is possible that the world we once knew might never really return. Looking inward is necessary to prevent us from making the same mistakes twice. We need to work collectively together to care for one another, and to help build a stronger economy and a healthier world, and what better to conclude this sentiment than with a great Bill Gates’ quote from his address at this year’s graduating class of Harvard University:

“Today, as then, the world faces mass suffer- ing and economic devastation. Again, nations will need to pull together to rebuild. But this time, you ... don’t need a commencement speaker to paint a picture of the ‘troubled areas of the earth’. The COVID-19 crisis we confront today is not a localised experience but a truly global one... Whatever your professional goals, wherever you live, and whoever you are, there are ways, big and small, that you can participate in making the world better for everyone.”