Physical Space

Reopening Safely and Securely (Ep. 143)

Everyone is questioning what our schools will look like this summer, this fall, and even further into the future. How do we reopen in a way that is safe for both students and teachers? In today’s episode, Nic talks to Vicki Wilson about how she reopened her socially distant art room in Hanoi, Vietnam. Full Episode Transcript Below.

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Nic: Vicki Wilson is a teacher that I have been following on Twitter and on Instagram for years. She has participated with the artist trading card exchange that I do yearly. I love following her on social media because she shares so much innovation and so much beauty into this world. She gives really great ideas of how to use Seesaw. In fact, I interviewed her earlier on the podcast several months ago, talking about her use of Seesaw. Who knew that she’d be using it in the way that she does today? Vicki is a teacher in Vietnam, and she’s going to give us a little bit of an insight of how school looks different as her students are entering the classroom again. This is Nic Hahn, and this is Everyday Art Room.

Vicki, thank you so much for joining us today. You know what? Before we get started talking about our topic today, will you just go into your background and kind of introduce yourself and tell us your educational background?

Vicki: Sure thing. So, I’m Vicki. You can probably hear from the accent I’m originally from England, Birmingham to be specific. I’ve been teaching internationally for 24 years now. After working in the UK for a little bit, I worked for long time in Italy, then Hong Kong. And I’ve been in Vietnam for two years now, where I’m teaching grades two to five elementary school art at the United Nations International School of Hanoi.

We’ve just gone back to school, which is rather exciting, and I’ve just finished the first week and the first day back with my students. We were able to reopen due to the conditions that we have in Vietnam. We’re very fortunate that there’s no community spread here. And really, we’ve just been focusing on enjoying being with the students again, welcoming them back and just making sure they feel safe and secure. It’s been a really great start back, actually.

Nic: For sure. Oh my gosh. I’ve got chills. I’m so excited to hear you talk about this today. But let’s go back into the past a little bit. When was your stay-at-home order? What did it look like? How did you run your digital classroom?

Vicki: Yeah, it was a baptism of fire, if you will. We basically broke for the Lunar New Year holiday at the end of January. And on the last day of that holiday, we were told we would not be returning the next day. So right from the 3rd of February, schools were closed across the whole of Vietnam. We got told basically on the Sunday that we’d be starting distance learning on the Tuesday.

Nic: Oh my goodness.

Vicki: So we had one day of faculty on campus. We had to plan how that would look and make some pretty quick decisions. And then straight away on that Tuesday, the 4th of February, we started a full program at distance.

As a specialist teacher, just like my PE and music colleagues, we have kept it pretty much the same throughout, actually. We’ve done one Zoom class a week for each grade level for our subjects, and two distance learning tasks for our subject for each grade level. And the way we organized it was with the homeroom, we post to the same Google slides. And then basically the school puts that onto one secure website that the students can access. Basically, it’s worked quite well because families have been able to look back on each task, just in one place. They don’t have to go searching through emails. So basically, students have continued to share their art learning with me through Seesaw portfolios. You know I’m a big user of Seesaw.

Nic: Right.

Vicki: Yeah, a big fan of that platform. It’s been great to be able to give individual feedback to the students using that voice record option. I found it really helped me to keep connected to the students to make them feel like I was almost with them, more like a dialogue.

So with the distance learning tasks that I post, I’ve always ensured that my voice is part of that. I wanted them to feel like we were still together, even though we weren’t. And then usually, typically I’ve had a video, either a flipped video that I’ve created on Movavi, which I really love as an app. And welcome message and introduction, which I got into using Apple Clips. It’s so versatile and I love all the filters on that.  The kids have really loved it. And so, basically, we completed 13 weeks like this. We had a spring break week and that coincided, actually, with the total lockdown of my city, Hanoi. And then since then we completed another couple of weeks of distance learning and we were able to reopen last week. So, super exciting to be back.

Nic: Oh my goodness. So a total of 15 weeks of doing this job. Is that correct?

Vicki: It is.

Nic: Oh my gosh.

Vicki: Yeah, and actually, I have to say, we’re still doing that because even though we’re back at school, some of our students are not.

Nic: Right. So you mentioned that some of your students are not, and so you’re running kind of two… But we’ll get into that a little bit later. I’m curious to know about your current situation. You’ve described… Well, first of all, let me just say, I’m sure it was stressful, absolutely, to go digital, but one of the things I know you for is your talent for using that digital platform of Seesaw and then just being adapt to this. Did you feel like you were qualified or ready to move into a platform like this?

Vicki: I mean, probably not, actually, at the beginning. I really didn’t feel like any of us were ready for this, but we had no choice. And obviously as art teachers we’re quite creative, so I feel like we just rolled with it and tried to work out the kinks as we went. I mean, it wasn’t perfect. When I looked back at those first videos that I did, I’m just cringing and wishing I could do them again.

Nic: That’s good to hear because that’s… I agree. I think many of us would, all shaking our heads right now. Agreed. Oh my gosh.

Vicki: You know what? This is why I got into using Apple Clips because it was so good to stop having to look at my face on videos.

Nic: Right.

Vicki: Yeah. There’s been a huge learning curve. I’m not going to lie. It wasn’t easy at the beginning. But what you said about Seesaw is absolutely true. We could not have done it without that platform.

Nic: I know.

Vicki: It’s just that instant feedback. The kids, they’ve been so engaged with it. Just, I leave a voice recording making comments about what I’ve seen, asking them questions, and they voice record right back to me.

Nic: They do.

Vicki: It’s almost like we’re in the room together. So it has been a big part of what we’ve done, for sure.

Nic: Wow. Okay. We have talked about what you ended up doing, but now you’re back in the classroom to a certain degree. Can we hear about what your current situation looks like and what… I’m sure that there are some rules that go along with this.

Vicki: Yes, lots of them. So basically, our high school and middle school came back a week before us. I feel like they worked out some of the things that needed to change for when we came back. Obviously working with elementary students, and we also have pre-K on campus, so even the little ones. We had to follow a lot of regulations just to be allowed to open the school again.

We had a local government inspection last Tuesday, which basically was our second day back open with the whole faculty and school students on campus. And they gave us the green light to continue because we’d put all those guidelines that they asked in place. We are very lucky. I have to sort of set a bit of a disclaimer that in Vietnam, we have not had a single community case spread of COVID-19 for over a month now. So obviously we feel confident reopening knowing that the likelihood of another community spread within our school is very, very unlikely.

Nic: Yes. Right.

Vicki: It kind of scares me the thought of reopening whilst there’s still community spread, but that’s why we have been able to open as we have done. So the government still expect us to do temperature checks with students. Basically that’s in the morning and in the afternoon, entry and exit. All students, staff and faculty have temperatures taken.

Nic: Wow.

Vicki: We’re not allowed any visitors, not even family members on campus. So parents are collecting from the gate. We walk the students out to there. Normally we have two gates, we’ve had four gates open. So it’s really all hands on deck for extra duties. But it’s allowed it to be quite smooth. The kids have been really wonderful at adapting to the new way of doing things.

Nic: Sure.

Vicki: Simple things like we’re not running a canteen. All food and utensils have to be brought from home. We are trying to eliminate too much mixing of the students. So even something like recess, they have a segregated area for their class that they use for one day. And then at the end of the day, that equipment is sterilized before anybody else can use it. I mean, obviously hand washing and hand sanitizer is a big part of everything right now. It’s on entry and exit of every room, so not just when they enter school. I actually stand in the corridor and just give them a quick squirt of hand sanitizer before they enter so that you’ve got that peace of mind.

Obviously being in Asia, mask wearing is part of the culture anyway. They’ve been through the history of SARS, and people don’t really have a problem with wearing a mask. It’s considered normal. So for our students, it’s been quite easy even though it’s mandatory. It has been before school opened anyway. So students are quite happy to wear those, and they are allowed to take them off if they’re sitting in a designated seat that’s 1.5 meters from someone else.

Nic: Oh, okay. Okay. I’m seeing.

Vicki: Yeah. Every time they get up, they have to put their mask back on. And it’s worked really well, actually. Even my daughter who’s four and a half, she just knows she’s got to wear a mask all day.

Nic: Okay. Yeah. But if the rules are so black and white, I mean, you just do it, right? I don’t know.

Vicki: Yeah. I think we all worried that the students would find it difficult adapting to this new normal, but in actual fact they find it easier than us, I think.

Nic: Yes. Most of the time.

Vicki: And I think because it’s school, we’ve also very much got the culture of gratitude. We are all super grateful to have this opportunity. And so we’re kind of jumping through anything, any hoop that’s asked of us.

Nic: Sure. Sure.

Vicki: We do have a situation though, being an international community where about 15% of our students can’t return to the country yet. The borders of Vietnam are not open. There are no flights yet internationally.

Nic: Oh, I see.

Vicki: Yeah. So that means we’ve got reduced numbers, which is good because we’re only allowed 20 students in a room currently. We’re very blessed with facilities, and I’ve got a side room that I can use should other students return. So we’re not too worried about that. But the rooms do look very different.

Nic: Yeah. Yeah, I’m sure.

Vicki: Yeah. We’ve had to take out all carpeting areas, all soft furnishings, toys, things like that. And obviously trying to limit any sharing of materials. Basically, there’s not much free choice in my room right now. We don’t have centers running, no collaborative tasks for the moment. But the students have just been happy to be back. So we’re focusing on what we can do rather than what we can’t do.

Nic: Right. Yeah.

Vicki: Yeah. Tables are separated. I’m not using the same supplies with a class that follows another class that have used them. We’re sanitizing everything. We’ve reduced supplies. I’ve only got five minutes between lessons, but I’m really blessed that I’ve got three wonderful cleaners who sterilize for me. And basically my technician and I hand out equipment to the students. So there’s a lot of sanitizing going on.

Nic: Yeah. You have assistance throughout the day. Is that what you’re saying? You have someone that helps you out with that?

Vicki: Yes. I’ve got a teaching assistant who is amazing. And she works with me 50% of the schedule. So we’ve tried to be really creative about modifying the program so that if one class are using paintbrushes, the next class don’t. And that means that the cleaners have time to clean for us. We are super blessed. I mean, as you can tell.

Nic: Yes. You do have a beautiful situation there.

Vicki: I am very aware of that. Whenever I’m talking about this with friends, we are very lucky in so many ways, and I know this will be challenging for a lot of schools running a program.

Nic: Yeah. Having similar guidelines, but maybe not the same resources.

Vicki: Absolutely. And that is a big one. I think my biggest advice to anybody would be focus on what you can do and let go the small stuff. I was worrying and stressing about my grade fours not doing printing. And you know what? In the grand scheme of things it’s not important right now. They can do that maybe next year. What is important is that we’re all safe and secure and just focusing on enjoying being together again.

Nic: Yeah. Yeah, that’s a beautiful idea. So as a teacher, what are you noticing from your coworkers or from the kids? We kind of touched on that a little bit, but what’s the human interaction like? I’m curious, tell me about it.

Vicki: It’s behind a mask, you get to looking in people’s eyes a bit more intently than perhaps you did previously. But I’ll be honest with you, it’s been an amazing experience. I have been flabbergasted by just how easy it has appeared for all of us. We are working harder, but we’re just so grateful to be back. And the kids have been incredible. I mean, super flexible, just getting on with whatever we’ve asked of them. And I feel the same very much from colleagues as well. We’re all working on keeping the culture light, fun. And again, as I said, focused on gratitude as we can because we know we’re very lucky.

Nic: Sure. Yeah, that makes sense.

Vicki: I guess the one thing I would point out, and I haven’t seen many specific examples of this yet, but I’m really mindful of the fact that after 15 weeks of isolation, some of my students might have experienced that like a traumatic event. Some of these students haven’t been allowed out of their house for 15 weeks because the parents are so worried. And I think that kind of concern and fear is not just in our community, it’s also with family and friends who are back at home and can’t get back to Vietnam.

I know obviously with family abroad, I worry about them too. So I’m very aware that there’s a full range of emotions that could surface any time. And we’re only just entering week two here. So I think it’s really important to check in with the children, how they’re actually really doing. Because while it’s been really exhilarating being back together, and everyone seems happy, you just never know what mixed feelings are bubbling under the surface.

Nic: Right. You are in the honeymoon stage per se.

Vicki: Absolutely.

Nic: You’re kind of starting it out. Yeah. Okay.

Vicki: Absolutely. I think it’s just important to really look out for the kids even more than we already would do. You don’t know what they’ve been through in this time.

Nic: Right. Yeah. And trauma is spread throughout. Like this situation was for every student, not just a few that are experiencing a different situation at home. It’s all of us, but in different ways. You’re correct.

Okay. You’ve kind of given us the rosy view of it, coming back, but also, there has to be some challenges, some struggles that you guys are dealing with as you’re coming back.

Vicki: For sure. I mean, as I said, I don’t want to make it seem like everything is perfect, because we are really tired. We’ve only done a week back at school, but there is a lot of extra work involved in this on top of the regular schedule and the extra duties that we’re doing in order to get the procedures in place. We are also running a full distance learning program because we have so many students out of the country. So this is still a Zoom class every day. I do that afterschool now. I’m still posting two art tasks per week per grade level as I was before, but obviously I don’t have the planning time for that now. So it is a little like working two jobs. It’s tiring.

But what keeps me going and I hope will get me through the next four weeks of the semester is the fact that we’re super lucky to get to connect with our families, both in school and overseas. I guess I would say a big surprise to me from the whole distance learning experience has really been the positive connections that have increased with my students. I felt like we knew each other really well, but boy, do we know each other even better now. I don’t know if everybody else has experienced that, but I have really experienced that strongly.

I thought it would be more challenging coming back to school when we’d kind of just got used to distance learning, but I’m seeing so many students that have thrived through this experience. Whilst we’re looking out for that trauma and being mindful, we’re also seeing that some of our introverts and our independence learners have really come out of themselves through having that independence.

Nic: Right.

Vicki: Yeah. So I just feel more connected to my kids than ever.

Nic: Yeah. Vicki, can you tell us, we’ve talked a lot about your job as an art teacher, but I know that you have children at home. Can you tell us your personal experience and what that’s looking like for your family?

Vicki: Absolutely. I’d be happy to. I have a four and a half year old daughter. She attends our pre-K class at my school. I thought it was going to be really challenging for her getting used to this new normal, especially this idea of distance and wearing a mask at such a young age. I think for the most part, our kids understand that the restrictions are necessary in order to allow us to reopen school. They’ve been amazing. And I’ve also seen that with her class, as I said, a pre-K class, the challenges are greater, I think, when you’re doing a play-based learning approach. But my daughter has been so happy to be back. At first, she worried about the differences she’d experience, but they have kept their mask on all week and it’s enabled them to play.

They do try to keep their distance when they’re all in the room together, but in actual fact, they’ve got their own individual baskets. So they’ve got access to all these loose parts and materials that they use for creating. And all the areas and supplies are sanitized at the end of the day. And talking to her teacher, all of those kids have kept the mask on without question, because it’s just their normal, it’s allowed them to be back with friends. So I would say that people worrying about particularly the youngest students, the restrictions and adaptations, quite often we have more problem with them than the kids do. And so what I would say is we are lucky in Vietnam that we’ve had such a strict and swift response from the government.

Nic: Truly.

Vicki: We feel really, really lucky to be able to end the school year. And I would say to anyone who’s in a position to reopen, maybe not now, but maybe with the next school year, not to worry too much about kids. Because they really are very versatile and they tend to just take it as a new experience.

Nic: Oh, that’s beautiful.

Vicki: Yeah.

Nic: Vicki, one more thing. How long are you guys back in physical school like this? Well, how long is this situation? Until your end of the year? Is that a couple of weeks?

Vicki: We’ve got four weeks left, actually. We’ve just started here actually, as I’m talking to you, the first of those four weeks. We are hoping and we are very confident that we’ll be able to sustain this till the end of the school year. And then obviously we’ll have to see what happens over the summer. I mean, we’ve got a lot of families that haven’t been able to get back yet, so we’ll see. Hopefully they can reenter soon, and maybe next year we’ll have a different new normal.

Nic: Yes. Yeah. Well-

Vicki: But I hope for everybody that your countries and your districts get to the state we’re at, where we’re able to open because the community spread has been contained. I think that’s vital.

Nic: Yeah. Right. And I loved your message of just feeling safe because of the environment that your country has created for you. So powerful. I cannot thank you enough for an insight of something that looks different than what most of us are living right now. It’s just invaluable to know that you’ve gone through this process and you’re continuing life in a new normal.

Vicki: We sure are. Thanks, Nic. It’s always really great to talk to you.

Nic: Vicki Wilson always presents herself so well. She is a leader in our area of art education. She shares and shares and shares on Instagram as well as on Twitter. And it’s all for this purpose, to learn from one another. I know that that is a valuable aspect of how she runs her classroom and it is for me as well. So I cannot say thank you enough to her for taking the time to meet with us today and share what it looks like in another country. How are students going back into the classroom? What are the rules, and how are they acting as they come back? Who is this really challenging for? Sounds like adults. The kids are adapting okay. I can’t thank her enough. This information was absolutely invaluable.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.