Amidst pandemic restrictions, international schools learn survival lessons

By Viet Anh   October 4, 2021 | 04:51 pm PT
Shifting to online education has been a learning experience for several international schools in Vietnam. They are trying to make classes more interactive while organizing focus groups with strict rules.

Before the school year started this September, Truong Hoang Minh, co-founder of the Metta Waldorf School in HCMC, faced two major problems.

One was how to redesign a training program compatible with online learning during Covid-19 outbreaks. The other was finding ways to persuade parents to stay. What made the problems much more difficult was that the school’s original motto was: no technology in studying.

Truong Hoang Minh, co-founder of the Metta Waldorf School in HCMC, and her kids join an online class in September, 2021. Photo courtesy of Truong Hoang Minh

Truong Hoang Minh, co-founder of the Metta Waldorf School in HCMC, and her kids join an online class in September, 2021. Photo courtesy of Truong Hoang Minh

Minh explained that her school, founded in 2014, was based on an international "tech-free model" created by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner in 1919. He recognized the need for education to enable children to become free and autonomous human beings, able to find purpose and direction in their lives. Teachers taught without lesson plans.

Before Covid's emergence in the country, Metta Waldorf had organized 11 small English classes outdoors for kids two to 12. Minh had seven teachers at peak time. She was able to arrange foreign trips for students to some countries in the region such as Thailand and Malaysia.

But its operations were severely affected by regulations on social distancing and travel restrictions imposed since last March. It closed and re-opened several times since.

The situation worsened in 2021, forcing Minh to return the school’s kindergarten to the landlord.

Minh had to accept that her school would have to turn to distance learning and the use of modern technology for long term survival. She also saw that teachers of other schools using the same system in other countries were open to using technology in teaching.

She and her partner, Devin Bond, embarked on a new plan to restructure the training program and have started to win the support of a small number of parents. They are trying to have more parents on board. For this, they had to motivate the students to get interested in online studying through various activities that would limit the use of screens. This approach also helped convince some teachers to continue their jobs with the school.

"We had to balance different people's needs, and it was not an easy task."

In September, Metta Waldorf was able to open online classes with a small number of students. Bond and a part time teacher took charge of teaching. Others left Vietnam due to pandemic hardships.

Students' feedback

Dr. Brenda Williamson, Head of the Canadian International School System (CISS), said that in an effort to keep their operations going, the school speeded up the interactive aspect of online learning.

This was done so that teachers did not simply supply information but checked to see if the student had understood what was being conveyed, so that they could "adjust the student’s learning."

Williamson said another important part of interactive learning was supporting the child’s character and wellbeing, helping him/her grow emotionally. The school has also conducted workshops on student wellbeing for families, enlisting their support for after-school clubs and activities. Parent workshops take place periodically over the course of the school year and are free for families. Parents outside the school system can attend the workshops on social networks.

Jason Petrasanta, a teacher at CIS, said the saddest part about transitioning to online learning to him was the quiet hallways and lack of vibrancy.

"CIS enormous arena which was usually the place of cultural and athletic events now sits empty and dark. Many of the students were sorely missing being able to socialize and take part in these fun school events."

But Petrasanta also witnessed improvements in the new conditions. With the technology, he can give comments in real time without disrupting the class. Students are less distracted and more focused to complete the task at hand. They also easily make it to class on time.

International schools in Hanoi are also promoting online classes.

Rik Millington, principal of the International School Park City Hanoi (ISPH), said like all organizations and businesses, the school's operation has been impacted by the pandemic. In response, the school formulated clear rules for behavior during online lessons and meetings, helping make home-learning as close to "in-school" as possible.

In parallel, lessons that do not require equipment are planned for each day. Books and a pack of home-learning materials are delivered to their homes.

"Therefore students can have a wide variety of lesson activities away from the screen to ensure their health," he said.

A teacher and and her students at the International School Park City Hanoi join an online class in September, 2021. Photo courtesy of ISPH

A teacher and and her students at the International School Park City Hanoi join an online class in September, 2021. Photo courtesy of ISPH

Nguyen Song Ha, a mother of two children studying at ISPH, said switching to online learning was a challenging time for her kids.

However, they have well adapted to the new way of learning thanks to a variety of materials used by teachers, and the fact that the timetable is pretty much the same as what it was before Covid-19.

Ha said her children were assigned some time during class hours to be physically active. They can dance, do experiments, discuss with their classmates, and they even have a meditation session. The activities help balance between learning and healthcare for the students in practical ways, she said.

Millington said the school was also pleased to offer a hybrid model of learning wherein lessons are broadcast online for students who may be unable to physically attend school. This is very helpful for families quarantined or still stuck overseas after schools have been able to reopen.

Notably, the school welcomed more than 50 new students and 13 new teachers this academic year, he said.

At the St. Paul American School Hanoi, Dr. Myong Hwan Eiselstein, executive director and high school principal, said the school has worked with teachers to modify daily lessons to suit an online environment.

"For example, students frequently move into smaller groups to provide a quieter, more focused environment."

Furthermore, St. Paul families have been regularly consulted, and courses have been adapted to suit the changing needs of households in Vietnam, he said. This way, parents are frequently asked for their feedback about the online learning program. Some of them requested more live lessons with teachers, compared to offline/homework tasks, and that has been implemented.

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