Working through the coronavirus

By now the entire world is reacting to the pandemic, but back in January only a small number of cases were outside China.  ENREACH’s foreign and local staff were either trapped inside their apartments in China or overseas for the Chinese New Year.  Andrew Sutherland from our HR team, has been in the Philippines for months now, hard at work.   We asked him to write about the experience, and here’s what he had to say:

“The recently crowned Covoid 19 pandemic was pretty much just a local news item when I left China for the Philippines for a short holiday back in January 18th. We, that’s me, my wife and two young kids, were planning to come back on Jan 29th. As everybody knows, the situation escalated dramatically, and by the start of February the Filipino government had issued an edict barring any Filipinos from travelling to China. I was really grateful that my employer, ENREACH Education, gave me the OK to work from home, which was now in a village five hours drive north of Manila, surrounded by eggplant and tobacco fields, a far-away place where cock-fighting is a very big deal, and dogs are not often given names.

What working from home would look like became clear really quickly. It was announced that no students in all of China would be able to attend face to face classes until at least the end of February, likely longer. I’m no Warren Buffet, but loads of refunds (students unhappy that their courses were delayed) and no sales (no new students signing up for courses) paired with no revenue for an indefinite period of time did not seem like a great business model. ENREACH would need to get on the internet, and fast.

A lot of the ground work had been put in place before the end of January, so it wasn’t like we were starting from zero. The Spring Festival holiday had been extended until the 10th of February, so the plan was that students would receive course packs to study from in that first week, then in the subsequent three weeks their studies would be accompanied by a teacher. These course packs were themselves located and compiled from online resources with a focus on writing improvement. They included subjects like Descriptive Writing, Opinion Writing, Persuasive Writing and Memoir Writing.

My past experience as an online teacher was a boon when it came to helping ENREACH teachers feel comfortable managing a remote classroom. I put together a set of procedures for using the Wechat group call function as a classroom medium, including how to stimulate reflective discussion at the start of the class, how to receive written work during class from students, and how to provide each student with one on one consultation time as part of the class structure. It is incredible to think now that on Feb 10th teachers ended their extended break from work, all in a state of semi-lockdown, stuck at home, received the training and the course material on that day, then started teaching their first remote courses the next day.

For most teachers, that entailed two 3 hour classes a day, for the next five days. A two day break, then a new round of courses for another 5 days. This translated to close to 450 students across Shanghai, Shenzhen, Nanjing, Chengdu and Hangzhou taking over 480 ENREACH Remote courses across the disciplines of Critical Reading and Writing (CRW), Debate, and Drama. That it went off with barely a hitch is a huge testament to the professionalism, flexibility, and dedication of the academic team.

More recent developments are that we have transitioned to a more mature platform, ZOOM, through which we run classes, and we use wechat groups in tandem to collect student work, and to provide any necessary reminders or communications between classes. We have also moved to a “Weekend” semester structure, so that classes are conducted on Friday evening, Saturday or Sunday only.

It’s been almost two months now. I’ve been appreciative of this chance to work remotely during this time. The village is fun for two or three weeks, but after all this time I shudder to think of the grizzled C3PO figure I might have become, dusty, dinted, slurping Red Horse in a Neepa hut, had it not been for the focus on work that has sustained me.

In the bigger picture, this COVOID-19 situation has fast tracked a lot of initiatives which had been slowly percolating for a while. Developing courses dedicated to writing and specialized drama skills, and clarifying the aims and designs of debate and public speaking courses were all major projects that we’ve broken ground on in the past few weeks. The very idea of an online product for ENREACH has gone from thought bubble to fact in the same short time.

More than these achievements, though, has been the tangible sense of a community growing and learning together through this time. It’s said that adversity brings people together, and ironical as it may seem, I’ve felt closer to my team and colleagues in these weeks than I have in the past year. Or maybe that is just the heat. One thing is certain: The troubles with the flu disease will pass, but what we’ve learnt and gained while facing this challenge will stay with us and inform our future endeavors, and that is a good thing for everybody.”