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GOVERNANCE & POLICY
There’s No Overstating This Challenge
By Meadow Dibble, TIE Editor 26-Mar-20
TIE Editor Meadow Dibble interviews Edward E. Greene, Executive Director of the East Asia Regional Council of Schools (EARCOS), who describes the impact of the coronavirus on international school communities throughout his region. Because the rapidly evolving situation varies from one country to another and from school to school, Ed Greene shares his perspective while insisting this is merely a snapshot. Meadow Dibble: Do you have a sense of how many international schools—and by extension, how many students and teachers—in your region have been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic? Ed Greene: There are over 185 EARCOS member schools. It is safe to say that all have been impacted one way or another. Student trips, athletic competitions, and professional development events have all been curtailed or cancelled entirely. One example serves to highlight the severity of the situation in terms of program impact: the Asia Pacific Athletic Conference (APAC) has 12 member schools; of those 12, only four are even open at the moment. Meadow: Has the response on the part of schools been fairly consistent, or are you seeing different trends emerge across the region? Ed: The greatest consistency is among the international schools in China, as the government has closed all of them. It appears that some may reopen earlier than others, but as I write this today that remains unclear. The international schools in Vietnam have also been closed and there is no definitive date, as of today, for this order to be rescinded. Schools in many other countries remain open but watchful for new developments. Meadow: Are schools largely shifting to online learning? Have many adjusted their calendars in anticipation of a major disruption? Ed: This varies from school to school, of course. Most schools have had an online learning platform available for quite some time now. However, the length of this current crisis will test their ability to deliver a level of instruction that matches what would be available during normal, on-site classroom instruction over an extended period. We are fortunate to have online options, to be sure. But, as a substitute for a full school experience over a lengthy period, compromises will have to be expected. Calendar adjustment is another strategy, but this will depend on the realities certain schools will face. Will families actually stay on site through the summer to make up for lost school time? It’s a bit like saying, if we build an extended calendar will people actually come? This situation is truly unprecedented, and we can expect different responses from different schools in different countries and different parent communities. The stress on school heads has to be enormous at the moment. You can’t overstate what a challenge all of this is for school leaders. Meadow: Do you know of any schools that are experiencing this as an existential crisis—one from which they fear they might not recover? Ed: That is the question, isn’t it? There are many schools in the region that have very healthy financial reserves intended to help them weather this sort of crisis. There are others, particularly small schools that are comparatively young, that face a very different financial reality. So, yes, there are some schools that do have to worry about the impact of this crisis on their financial health—and on their future. A recent article in Bloomberg News actually highlighted this concern for 14 international schools in Hong Kong. Part of the challenge is going to come from parents who may demand a reimbursement for tuition and fees, although it would seem that most school tuition contracts will protect against that. The larger concern may be that expat families will have left the country and decide not to return at all. It is unknown territory, so it is pretty safe to assume that many international schools are going be hurt to varying degrees as a result of this crisis. Meadow: What can you tell us about the pandemic’s financial impact on schools and, in particular, on teachers? Are staff getting paid? Ed: At this time, we have not been made aware of any member schools curtailing teacher salaries. The general belief is that all teachers will return once the schools can reopen this spring—and those that are currently closed are asking teachers to deliver instruction from home, where possible, so they are being paid. What will happen after the current school year ends is a guessing game at this point. The best-case scenario is that the schools will reopen, perhaps to modestly smaller enrollments and tighter budgets for the year, but most will gradually return to normal. Meadow: The virus began to spread at the height of recruiting season. How has the timing of this outbreak impacted schools’ attempts to plan for 2020-21? Ed: This question is a hard one, as the situation from country to country and school to school varies dramatically. I think it is fair to say that the candidates may have been somewhat more reluctant to agree to sign contracts in schools in cities where the virus remains a concern. However, many international educators are intrepid souls and have the patience to wait out certain periods of challenge. Recruiting is always a challenge, but this year, for many Heads, the challenge has been larger than normal. Meadow: What has changed for the EARCOS organization itself since the virus was first reported at the turn of 2020? Ed: Our most immediate challenge was the impact on attendance at the spring EARCOS Teacher Conference, planned for the end of March in Bangkok. Because of the general level of uncertainty, not to mention the loss of all delegates and presenters from mainland China and several other locations, it was decided, with great reluctance, to cancel the conference. The amount of work that had gone into the planning for the conference was enormous—by the EARCOS staff, the keynoters, the presenters, the hotel staff—and so many more. It is really such a loss of information and inspiration. We are, though, working full steam ahead preparing the October Leadership Conference and the 2021 Teachers’ Conference. Meadow: What kind of a vacuum does that create? How will this impact teachers working in the region? Ed: The EARCOS Teacher Conference has enjoyed an extremely positive reputation for years and years, not only across the East Asia region but globally. For the teachers not to have this opportunity to network and exchange new ideas and best practice is a real loss. But, as I noted, we are already working on the 2021 conference and it is shaping up as a really exciting event. So, over time, things will even out, but there is no question that canceling this year’s event, while the right decision for many reasons, does leave a void across the region. We are eager to see everything return to some semblance of normalcy soon! Meadow: Facing a major public health crisis requires striking a difficult balance between taking appropriate precautions and avoiding panic-inducing overreaction. How are EARCOS member schools managing this challenge on the public relations front? Ed: Our schools, from all I have heard and seen, are managing this crisis exceptionally well. They are balancing their actions but leaning, always, toward erring on the side of protecting students, faculty, and the expat communities they serve. Every single one of the schools in EARCOS should be applauded for their efforts to continue to deliver valuable opportunities for student learning in the fact of such uncertain times. Their commitment to quality and to the young people they serve has long been a hallmark of this region. It will continue to be so.
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