Report from China from an International School Librarian: Making Sense of School Closures
I am firmly of the opinion that there is a great deal of benefit in remembering that, even as our world shuts down thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, this kind of thing has happened to other people before. There are school librarians throughout the world that have faced school closures for a variety of different reasons. Think of the schools that were closed during the SARS outbreak, Arab Spring, the onset of H1N1, swine flu, the ouster of President Morsi, and even Ebola. School librarians were there, helping the kids, in every case.
Yet, to the best of my knowledge, there is only one librarian that has witnessed all of these events firsthand.
If I could, I would designate Carolyn Jeziorski an official Expert Disaster Librarian. Recently she wrote to me from the American International School of Guangzhou, China where her school has been closed since the beginning of February due to the coronavirus outbreak. She was just offering a comment on my podcast, but when I got wind of her life I just knew she might be able to offer some advice and perspective to those of you working from home, waiting out a pandemic we neither wanted nor planned for. Because if anyone knows what we’re going through at this moment, it’s Carolyn.
Betsy Bird: First and foremost, thank you so much for talking with me today! Before we get into it, could you tell us a little bit about yourself? Why have you had the opportunity to work in so many different school libraries around the world?
Carolyn Jeziorski: I have always loved traveling and learning about other places and cultures. My mom was a Latin teacher and used to take students overseas. She encouraged me to go on a trip to France in high school, and I was bitten by the travel bug. I did a study abroad in Paris, backpacked around Europe, and knew I wanted to live overseas.
My undergrad major was Language, Literature, and International Studies. After a few years working in a bookstore, I decided to become an elementary teacher. My dad’s cousin lived in Egypt with her family, and she encouraged me to look into working in international schools. After teaching elementary school in Atlanta, Georgia, for six years, I decided to try out international education.
My first job was at Canadian Academy in Kobe, Japan, where I worked for five years teaching grades 1, 4, and 5. I then went to Cairo American College, Egypt and taught the same grades. I stayed in Cairo for six year. My third school was the American International School of Abuja, Nigeria, for four years. When I took that job, I worked on earning my EdS. in Instructional Technology with a focus on School Library Media. I was the curriculum coordinator at the school, and I also did my practicum work in the library, overseeing the library for one year as well. Then, in August 2018, I came to the American International School of Guangzhou, China, where I am the elementary school librarian.
I’ve enjoyed all my posts so far, and I am single, so I don’t worry too much when looking for new places to live. My only concern is whether my two dogs can come with me. Also, working overseas means opportunities to travel. I have visited 65 countries and counting!
BB: You told me your story when you wrote me an email in response to a podcast episode, but I wonder if you could just give us a lowdown of why you’ve lived through seven or eight different school closures?
CJ: So, my friends joke that I must bring these things with me when I go to new places. Right after I accepted my first job, SARS broke out in Asia. Luckily, it was over when I arrived that August. I don’t remember closing at all while in Japan, though we did have a few typhoon days–like snow days in the states–so in Japan I was lucky.
I lived in Cairo during H1N1, swine flu, the Arab spring, and the overthrow of President Morsi. We closed several times, from one week to a few weeks. Also, the school programmed a “Virtual School Day” into the yearly schedule to practice in case of closures. I honestly have lost count of how many times we had closures in Cairo, but most were shorter. My school was only closed for two and a half weeks during the Arab spring; other schools were closed for two months.
The Ebola virus broke out in Nigeria shortly after I arrived, and our school closed for six weeks right at the start of the school year. We were open for two days, and not all the kids were back yet. Then, we announced the shutdown.
Now, I’m in Guangzhou, and there’s another outbreak. Honestly, it seems to follow me.
BB: A lot of librarians are at home, wondering how long it will be before their schools and libraries reopen. When you receive notice that your school has been closed, how do you handle it now verses the first two or three times it happened?
CJ: Every school closure is different. A lot of my feelings are related to the circumstances surrounding the closure. For health closures, like the current one, I’m usually not as stressed. I know to wash my hands, avoid touching other people, just be cautious.
January 25, 2011, when the Arab spring kicked off, was a different story, because the government shut down the internet, cell reception, everything. There was no way to communicate for about two days except for landlines, which we luckily still had in our flats. There was a curfew in effect from 3pm to 9am every day, everything was shut down, and embassies and companies were evacuating. Our school didn’t evacuate, and the first few days were unsettling. Luckily I lived above a market and could dart down during the two hours they were open to get food.
This time, I was on our Chinese New Year vacation when the COVID-19 outbreak started in Wuhan. So, I was away when we were told school wasn’t going to reopen. I decided to return to China as planned, against the WHO recommendations, because I wanted to be with my dogs, and Guangzhou is nowhere near Wuhan so I figured I would be fine. I also didn’t want to risk carrying the virus back to the states; my mom is older and in the at-risk population.
BB: What’s the difference between these closures now verses when you first started the job?
CJ: Technology and internet access are the biggest differences. There are so many apps that make distance learning easier for students now, especially younger ones, like Zoom and Seesaw. Also, during most of my other closures, students were still around, so they could come to school and collect work packets, which limited screen time. We did a lot of packets for H1N1 and swine flu closures, as well as Ebola. We could send materials with kids, which helped as both Egypt and Nigeria had spotty electricity and internet.
This time, our students and staff were on vacation, so no one had any of their materials, including technology. Since I came back to China, I asked for permission to access our campus to get books. I do daily live read alouds for our students in Zoom, and I’ve recorded some readings for different Units of Inquiry (we are a PYP school). These recordings are housed on our password-protected server. I’ve also compiled a list of free online reading resources for our community.
One challenge during this closure is that many websites, including Google, YouTube, etc., require a VPN in China, so we are not able to use them. I’ve been testing a lot of websites for teachers who are away (the majority of our teachers left China when the WHO warning came out) to make sure their students here can access them. Another challenge is that many students have to share technology. We are a 1:1 school, but students are not able to take home their devices.
An “easier” difference is that I’m now a librarian. Our classroom teachers have so much more work to do. They are collaborating on lessons, checking and assessing student work, communicating with parents and students, commenting on student work in Seesaw; it’s a huge amount of time. I am happy to support them by collecting resources, but I know I am not doing nearly as much as they are.
BB: So there ways in which you keep in contact with your students virtually?
CJ: I’ve been doing daily read alouds using Zoom. One is for grades preschool to 2, the other for grades 3 to 5. Today, I had 60 kids at the P-2 one. I read two stories to each group. With the younger kids, we also do games–basically, “Find something red” or “Find something you can open and close” and they run and get something and hold it up. With the older kids, we just chat about what’s going on. Many of our students have not left their apartments since the end of January; they have not been outside, they have been stuck inside their apartments or houses in China. That’s hard for kids. My dogs make appearances during the read alouds; the kids can now tell them apart and ask to see them.
I also have students, teachers, and parents emailing me. I did a virtual parent coffee, where I made videos for how to use all our databases. My teaching assistants then made versions in Chinese as well. I send out tweets for resources that I find, and I am active in several Facebook groups for international librarians as well as teaching during the school closure.
BB: What advice would you give to librarians that might be having a hard time when they look at the news reports and worry about the future?
CJ: What you see on the news is only one perspective; things are never as bad as what the news suggests. I was watching CNN do a segment at the start of February where they said there’s no food in the stores, the streets are empty, everything is shut down. I had just gone to the grocery store that day and there was no shortage. The only things that were hard to find in February were masks and hand sanitizer. What was on the news was Wuhan, not China. It was the same during the Arab spring. What was on the news then was centered on Tahrir Square. My neighborhood was quiet and had no protests.
Stay calm during these times. You have to be sure you are in a good place mentally and emotionally as well. Keep track of your mental health. Be sure to get up and move around during the day. Keep a schedule as well from day-to-day that includes time for yourself to take breaks.
Oh, and there is plenty of toilet paper. No need to hoard that.
BB: Finally, we’ve heard that some of the schools and libraries are opening up again in China. How are things in Guangzhou these days? Do you have a sense that things are looking up?
CJ: Guangzhou is slowly returning to “normal”. There are more people out and about, more stores are opening. IKEA reopened last week, and I went this past Sunday. It was busier than I expected! Restaurants are open with “limited” seating; you can go, but they’ve removed half the tables and chairs so there is more space. One positive sign that things are improving is that I have seen more children out during the last two weeks.
However, it’s definitely not 100% back to normal. A case was confirmed in my building over the weekend, so authorities came to check my passport, my temperature, my entry stamp from February 1. Anyone who comes into China has a mandatory quarantine for two weeks at the moment.
So far, the government for our province hasn’t given a reopening date for schools, but I am thinking it will happen by the end of April. Everyone still is required to wear a mask outside, and there are temperature checks everywhere: when entering my compound, entering a restaurant, entering a store.
I continue to go to school every week to get more books to read, and a few of the teachers who are here come by as well to check out books. We then go out to lunch and have a chance to chat. We also try to do a happy hour once a week to meet up. It’s a nice break during the craziness.
I cannot thank Carolyn enough for joining me on this blog today. That’s up-to-the-minute information on China that gives me hope that we’ll see this through here in the States as well.
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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