Nfld. & Labrador

Worlds apart: N.L. teacher hopeful as lockdowns end for her students in China

Raelene Kean of Corner Brook is living through the pandemic for herself now, after first experiencing it virtually with her online students in China.

Raelene Kean of Corner Brook teaches ESL students in China online

Raelene Kean teaches English as a second language online to students in China. (Submitted by Raelene Kean)

None of us wanted to experience a pandemic at all but, in a sense, a Corner Brook woman is living through it for a second time, and she has a message of hope that we could all use right now.

Raelene Kean first started hearing about the coronavirus from her students in China, whom she teaches English as a second language.

Kean was following news from Wuhan, where the virus originated, at the same time as she was hearing stories from some of her own students about how the virus was affecting their lives.

She listened as students shared their disappointment and fear, as China went into lockdown, and school classes and all other normal activities were cancelled.

For Kean, it was like being forewarned of what could happen if COVID-19 made its way to Newfoundland and Labrador.

"I knew it was coming, and it wasn't so much of a shock because I was following it so closely. It was just kind of when this happens, not if this happens."

Early word of COVID-19

Kean is employed by a company that connects students in China with ESL teachers.

Her students range in age from pre-school to junior high, and she teaches mostly half-hour classes for about 35 hours per week on average.

She says that gives her an opportunity to form relationships with students she sees weekly or more often, and it was around the time of Chinese New Year in late January that some of them started to mention that the virus was affecting their daily lives or that people they knew were sick.

"A lot of the time, they just mentioned how much they missed their friends and how upset they were that they couldn't play basketball," she said.

"They were just stuck in their homes for the most part."

Kean said the restrictions on daily life for her students were much stricter than those now in place in Canada.

Some of her Chinese students were separated from family for the duration of the lockdown because their parents worked in the medical field and weren't permitted to come home at all between shifts at the hospital.

A teacher gives a lecture with her smart phone during an online class at a middle school in Donghai in China's eastern Jiangsu province on Feb. 17. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

More demand for ESL

Kean said one thing that stands out to her was how quickly her Chinese students were switched over from in-class instruction to online learning — within a week, so that their schooling was barely interrupted.

She said many of them also wanted extra classes of English during the pandemic, so that made her even busier with teaching than she usually is as she added classes to meet the demand.

She said speaking directly to young people in China through those weeks from January to March helped her to better understand the impact of the virus.

"I think a lot of them wanted to talk about it. They wanted to tell what was going on with them," said Kean.

Putting herself in their shoes

Kean said hearing the stories from China first-hand was concerning, and she started to think her own family might face something similar if the virus were to spread to Canada.

"I was always wondering what happens if it comes here, how do we handle it, and how difficult it might be," she said.

She said it occurred to her to stock up on groceries in early March, before most people in Newfoundland and Labrador were of that mindset.

"If I wasn't in this job and I wasn't talking to students who were living through it, I probably would have ignored it a little bit more in the news. But I was able to kind of mentally prepare a little bit better, I think, because of my job."

A staff member checks the body temperature of a student at the entrance of a middle school as students return to school after the term opening was delayed due to the COVID-19 outbreak, in Shenyang in China's northeastern Liaoning province on Monday. (AFP/Getty Images)

Hope on the horizon

Kean said the stories from her students are also what give her hope right now in the midst of the pandemic lockdown in Canada.

Just in the last few weeks, Kean said, her students have started to talk about being allowed to go for a walk or to go shopping again, and some of them have started returning to school.

"Knowing how bad it was over there … I'm very hopeful that eventually things will return to normal," she said.

Kean is encouraging others to not lose hope either.

"We're not the first ones to go through this. Other people have gone through it for so long now, and they're coming out on the other side," said Kean.

"So even though it's tough and we are restricted, it's not going to be forever."

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About the Author

Bernice Hillier is a host of CBC Newfoundland Morning, which airs weekday mornings across western and central Newfoundland, as well as southern Labrador.