The world rang in the new year with the terrible news of the corona virus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, which has shut communities, businesses, and schools across China.
Although the Keystone Academy campus has been closed for two weeks, classes have been running through digital platforms. On the sidelines of this online learning approach, Keystone staff have been working on running the school normally and ensuring the health and safety of the residential community.
Since the onset of the outbreak during the Spring Festival holiday, Head of School Malcolm McKenzie has continuously guided the community through his numerous yet reassuring communications about the actions of the school. Alongside this, Medical Director Eric Meng and the Keystone Health Center have been publishing medical bulletins about the novel coronavirus and sharing insights into how everyone can help curb its spread.
Following the announcement on January 26 by the Beijing Municipal Education Commission of the delayed school reopening, Mr. McKenzie informed the school staff of the online learning approach that would take place in the coming weeks.
During the holiday, the School Leadership Team formed three special task forces that monitor the situation closely with the relevant government authorities. The Academic Committee, composed of academic division heads and deputies, implements online learning for students. The Operations Committee deals with running vital school functions. The Resident Volunteer Committee ensures smooth communication on implementing residential guidelines on campus, as well as collecting feedback from resident families and supporting non-resident families.
Online Learning and Virtual Support Systems
“Some extraordinary learning has already taken place. Be patient, please, and flexible. This is a fine time for parents to support the learning of their children, especially our younger ones,” Mr. McKenzie said of the online learning approach, which began on February 5 (Wednesday). This method is based on reviewing and consolidating previously learned knowledge and follows the guidelines of the Beijing Municipal Education Commission.
“Students have also been doing inquiry- and research-based learning. When they learn independently, they will produce some knowledge points and encounter new methods of understanding,” Associate Head of School and Dean of Curriculum Lili Jia says. “This is not to say that we are taking a new class, but that new knowledge will be generated naturally in the process.”
According to Ms. Jia, the Academic Committee worked together with the IT and Innovative Learning Departments to conduct training sessions for teachers, parents, and students to maximize the effectiveness of online learning.
Director of IT Dong Ai says parent and faculty webinars receive a high audience turnout. Initial sessions organized in the first week of February reached a full capacity of 500 viewers each. Meanwhile, Director of Innovative Learning Sandra Chow says online classes utilize digital learning platforms that are already being used by students and teachers.
“In Primary School, certain subject areas such as science, music, wushu, and drama have weekly activities done in Seesaw. Students can choose which ones they want to do first and upload their reflection using the same platform. In Secondary School, students use Microsoft Teams and ManageBac—and these are platforms that we have been using over the years. Teachers can share resources or even record their videos that are accessible even after the class.”
Mr. Ai says different time zones and network connections pose logistical challenges and affect the quality of online learning. Despite this, the two departments are working together to meet the needs of faculty and families, including organizing daily training sessions and providing technical support.
Some parents, however, are concerned about whether online learning can achieve the same effect that of face-to-face learning. Ms. Jia says it is not meant as a substitute but it is a method that we have been using before.
“Online learning is not only the method that we have this time. Keystone defines learning as a lifelong journey that happens at any time. In other words, learning takes place not only in schools but also at home and on different occasions. But when does effective learning happen? It occurs when students decide they want to learn regardless of the situation,” Ms. Jia says.
Besides online learning, the school is also providing families with virtual counseling and parenting suggestions through the Center for Student Development (CSD) as the concerns brought about by the outbreak and in-home quarantine can be overwhelming and affect the emotional wellbeing of students.
“For many students, it is tricky knowing what to do and how exactly. That is where we come in,” CSD Director Angie Bergeson says. “All of our counselors, learning and language support specialists, as well as the Secondary School learning assistants have reached out to different constituents. Many students and families have already gotten back to our team members and we are in constant communication.”
Other academic departments also offer additional support. The three Keystone Libraries have updated their webpages to show reading lists on viruses and outbreaks and available research materials.
The Office of College Counseling, meanwhile, has revamped its guidance schedules for Grade 10 students and their parents and moved the Diploma Programme (DP) choice deadline to February 24 (Monday). Director of College Counseling Percy Jiang has also informed Grade 12 students and families of the response of the various universities worldwide regarding the outbreak.
"Some universities have adopted measures and delayed the deadline for applications from Chinese students. Many universities will also adjust relevant policies to support Chinese applicants,” Mr. Jiang adds.
Keeping a Safe Campus Environment
The Keystone Health Center has been working closely with the three task forces on sharing medical information about the outbreak to minimize its impact on the Keystone community. Even before the COVID-19 became widespread in early January, Dr. Eric Meng had alerted the families and staff and prompted them to review their travel plans to avoid possible infection. In his subsequent bulletins, Dr. Meng has balanced scientific information about the virus with practical advice and preventive actions.
Director of Facilities Jeremy He and Security Manager Alex Mao, who are both members of the Operations Committee, say the school is adopting various control measures. These include equipping engineering, logistics, and security personnel with protective materials; restricting the entry of people into the main teaching building; closing public areas such as the school gym, fitness center, and swimming pools. Logistics staff continue to disinfect public spaces and have put up hygiene-related posters and health reminders throughout the campus.
Mr. He also says the school will install ultraviolet disinfection facilities on air conditioning and circulation units to further block any possible air transmission of the coronavirus.
The Resident Volunteer Committee, meanwhile, has introduced updated guidelines for campus residents and established communication mechanisms to send timely notices from school leaders and collect feedback from families. Committee head and Director of Faculty Hongwei Gao says the task force currently has 13 members representing different academic departments and campus residents.
“We continuously remind faculty and families who live on campus to pay extra attention to their physical health. We face a special situation, and everyone has done their part to help the community rise above the challenge,” Ms. Gao adds.
Heading into Uncharted Territory
Ms. Chow calls the online learning “uncharted territory” and encourages the Keystone community to see the health crisis as a learning opportunity.
“It can feel scary and uncertain when you go to open waters and do not know where you are going. But it should not stop us from trying and learning and having that spirit of adventure. Online learning is very normal for people around the world and it will allow students to understand how great it can be when we do it right,” she says.
Dean of Student Life Kelli Sanchez says Keystone’s residential life teaches students self-discipline, which is crucial in the current situation. Her office has also received emails from students who are wanting to help, such as donating masks or hand sanitizers. She finds it compelling that they think of ways to assist with recovery efforts “in a time when it is easy to focus on what we cannot do.”
She also says the five shared values provide the community with an excellent lens to examine the situation.
“There is a more individual approach, using wisdom: how will they continue their learning? But then you think further, what do justice and compassion mean in a situation like this? We have so much at Keystone; are we in a position to help others? How do we do that while keeping our community safe? Examining all of this through the lens of our values and then acting accordingly will lead to deep and meaningful learning. Primarily, students should follow the government and school’s directives and we may have to make some small sacrifices for a little while, such as completing our learning using alternative methods. We may not have everything we want, but we have to recognize that we’re fortunate to have this alternative and the flexibility of skill to explore other possibilities.”
Amid the uncertainty and confusion due to the outbreak, Mr. McKenzie encourages everyone to maintain enthusiasm and stay happy and healthy. He also reminds the community to behave with maturity and restraint and try to find fresh opportunities in these trying times.
“We are in the middle of a serious situation. We must recognize that and take the most effective precautions that we can. Crises sometimes bring out the worst in people, but often they bring out the best. Let’s make sure that we show our best.”