Written by Judy Chuck, Pheel Wang
Translated by Mark Wan
Edited by Diana Chang, Adriana DiBenedetto
In March of 2020, when multiple states established shelter-in-place procedures to safeguard communities during the spread of COVID-19, many presumed the pandemic would only last a few months at most.
Yet, more than a year has passed, and the pandemic is still ongoing. During this time of great uncertainty, people’s lives and routines have faced myriad transformations. This also included the youngest members of the community, as schools closed and quickly shifted to facilitate remote learning.
In February, however, the CDC announced that students from pre-K to K-12 would be allowed to return to school for in-person learning, provided attendance does not exceed twelve students, and both teachers and students must practice strict social distancing measures. This was exciting news for many youngsters who were eager to see their friends and teachers again, and it was a welcome development for parents and teachers who hoped to see the children away from their computer screens.
With the joint efforts of Tzu Chi school teachers and staff from the education team, students could safely return to school.
In-Person Learning Begins
Upon students’ return to Tzu Chi Elementary School in Walnut, California, on February 22nd, the school had taken strict measures for pandemic prevention, the level of which put the hearts and minds of parents at ease.
Before 8 AM, the school’s president, Chet Crane, stood at the gate to greet returning students and interacted with parents. Melodi Wong, the first student at the scene, beamed with joy.
Melodi’s mom said that what her daughter was most excited about was not having to look at her computer screen as frequently, as she often expressed her eyes feeling tired and strained. In response, President Chet said that with pandemic prevention measures fully in place, he’s also glad the students can come to in-person instructions again, and expressed his appreciation for the efforts made by school staff and volunteers that made the return to school a reality.
“Tzu Chi schools are really incredible. With everyone’s help, kids are back. What bright smiles! Some of these smiles came from parents who could relax a little because of this return to school. Other smiles came from kids because they could finally see their classmates.”
This reunion after a year’s absence was a source of joy for many. Teachers and volunteers assisted students who carried heavy school bags into classrooms. Parents also gladly helped prepare teaching realia.
“[The idea of kids] hunkering down at home every day is miserable,” said a mother named Anita Cheng. “A kid needs to visit the playground and play with friends, which can kill boredom and also develop their ability for social interaction.”
Upon beginning the outdoor assembly at 8:15 AM, all students and faculty bowed in appreciation of Dharma Master Cheng Yen, the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation’s founder. Students then deposited small change into a bamboo bank in observance of the tradition she set in motion, and saluted the national flag while the school president delivered the announcements for the day. These were all familiar elements of everyone’s daily routine in the past, yet returning after quite a long time made these actions feel somehow more precious.
Vietnamese Tzu Chi volunteers had handcrafted cloth face masks at the height of the pandemic for Tzu Chi’s elementary school students. Touched by this act of care delivered from across the world, the students wore them while studying.
The morning assembly concluded with teachers guiding students into the school from different entrances, and everyone only entered their classrooms after washing their hands. During class, all wore face masks, temperatures were taken at three specified times, and all desks were placed six feet apart with transparent plexiglass dividers. Not only were there posters illustrating proper hand-washing and social distancing, but also designated times for Tzu Chi volunteers to sanitize.
Katherine Wong is a 5-year-old in preschool. Having not seen the familiar faces of volunteers in quite a while, she couldn’t wait to share what she’d just learned in the classroom. When asked if she liked coming back to school, Katherine replied, “I do.” And when asked what she liked most, she happily stated, “I like my teachers!”
The joyful frolicking of children had finally brought a truly radiant energy back to Tzu Chi Elementary School’s Walnut campus.
Fully aware of the level of difficulty involved in reopening in-person learning, the school’s president and education team were ready and willing to do more. For example, instead of checking everyone’s temperature only once at the beginning of the day, the school does so three times per day as a promise to parents. Educating kids to be humanistic world citizens is indeed among our school’s characteristics as well.
Overcoming Unprecedented Times
The very first Tzu Chi USA school to reopen was Tzu Chi’s Great Love Preschool, located in Houston, Texas.
“The kindergarten shut its campus down together with the rest of public schools,” said Mei Yeh, the Assistant Director of Great Love Preschool. These measures were taken as a means of stopping in-person class without stopping learning. Nevertheless, director Yeh also expressed that, “Lacking in-person interaction under a normal educational environment still took a toll on the efficacy of kindergarten education.” To avoid interruption on a deeper level, the school regularly brainstormed about the most effective means of resuming in-person classes while reducing the risk of infection. Beginning in August of 2020, the preliminary work before the reopening included doubling down on sanitizing the campus environment, conducting training courses, and making sure all procedures conformed with the provisional reference manual that the CDC provided in addition to the TxHmL COVID-19 emergency rules. In carrying out these measures for campus pandemic prevention, all details for the reopening, no matter how small, were taken into account with the utmost care.
On August 17th, 2020, prior to the reopening, the kindergarten recorded a new video about relevant measures for pandemic prevention and published it on its Facebook page. Faced with the ongoing pandemic, the education team worked together to overcome the obstacles set forth with a team spirit, each doing their part. As for parents and kids, all fully cooperated with the school to achieve the greatest efficacy for pandemic prevention.
Educators also used the pandemic to cultivate a positive attitude when dealing with difficulties, rather than allowing negativity to take hold: “We took advantage of this pandemic as a learning opportunity for these kids, inculcating in their minds a good habit for personal hygiene,” Mei Yeh shared. “Meanwhile, we guided kids onto a path of positive action, which would demonstrate respect of and concern for fellow humans.”
Although the effects of the pandemic can still be felt, Tzu Chi’s compassionate educational practices endure with mindful attention to bring forth hope and joy.