Pandemic Lockdown Day 1: 26 March 2020

On Monday, 23 March 2020, we at The Place Where I Work had meetings galore.

The COVID-19 pandemic situation around the world was getting worse. The Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, addressed the nation on Saturday, 21 March 2020, a full 9 years and 1 month after the devastating Christchurch earthquake and a year and a week after the Christchurch terrorist attacks; a new alert system for COVID-19 was in place; we were at alert level 2 out of a possible 4; and the system could jump to the top level 4 at any moment.

China had faced the initial breakout of COVID-19, but in clamping down, managed to control it pretty much. Italy was now the next hotspot, now at the point of determining who they would save and who they would let die due to the lack of appropriate equipment and inadequate medical staff members; and the USA was vying for the next top hotspot due to Donald Trump doing sweet fuck-all to lead a national response to control, or at least attempt to contain, the virus.

Our students, in some practical classes, work very closely together. A lot closer than the appropriate 2 meter social distancing space. So in our meetings, we debated this.

Another provider like ours had suddenly shifted to online learning.

Universities were suddenly halting all face-to-face learning for online lectures.

A pattern was emerging, and the stars were conspiring as they aligned. It all crystalized in my mind.

In the meetings on Monday, I drove my point home: the Prime Minister’s announcement on Saturday was a precursor to something big; other tertiary-level providers shifted suddenly to online learning; we needed to follow suit; and we could buffer it by announcing a teacher-only day on Tuesday.

Most of our team assembled first thing, before classes. We discussed the issues at hand, and assured them that the senior management would be meeting to flesh out our approach during the day. We sought feedback and received it.

Before classes, we spoke openly and honestly to our students. As always, I had my say. In the middle of speaking to the student body, I started crying. The message was that my family and friends were facing ever-growing threatening odds in the States, I was very concerned about them, but we could not let that happen in New Zealand. We each had a duty to act responsibly and isolate, no matter what.

God bless our students, they were kind, compassionate, and considerate. I could feel the mood change in the room as I broke down. And it proves, to me at least, how empathic and wonderfully caring they all are. Those skills, inherent and hard-to-learn, will lead anyone far in life.

I spoke with some students between first and second periods. They were really worried. I explained we were thinking of ramping down operations to ease our students from face-to-face to distance learning, the final face-to-face on Friday, 27 March 2020, but many expressed apprehension, and it made me realize we had to accelerate the timeline. I always advocated a teacher-only day on Tuesday, 24 March 2020 to help us prepare, as a team, to migrate to online learning.

The meetings after the first assembly and during second period were long and complicated. We’d experienced the New Zealand Qualifications Authority and the unfair, unethical way they behaved post-earthquakes, and we didn’t want a repeat of that debacle. (Had common sense and kindness prevailed, with a spirit to work together instead of an iron fist from NZQA during the quakes, we would have had less of a debate. Sadly, NZQA is not an organization that any of us will ever trust again.) But my point was that this tsunami of COVID-19 was coming. We didn’t have any apparent community transmission yet, but being in such close contact with one another due to the nature of our industry, we had to shift to online learning as soon as possible to protect us all.

My adjusted proposal was to speak to the students after class on Monday; to hold a teacher’s only day on Tuesday to prepare for the next 4 to 6 weeks of online teaching; and to fully migrate to distance and on-line learning starting on Wednesday, 25 March 2020 until we returned from term break on Tuesday, 28 April 2020 (incorporating the term break, from Friday, 10 April 2020 until Monday, 27 April 2020, including Easter and ANZAC Day observed).

After some debate, we concluded that my proposal would be the one we would adapt. We would speak to the students when classes ended at 1 PM to tell them of our decision. Our Principal printed out assignment and further practical and theory lessons we would have covered during classes for remote learning until we could fully establish an online platform.

(On a side note, seeing where this was going to go before it happened, I created, and modified significantly, a Moodle online platform to prepare for a shift to online learning, the weekend before.)

After class, we passed out the notices and spoke to the students as a whole. There was a visual and strong sense of relief coming from the room. It was the right decision to make. This was at 1 PM.

By 1:30 PM, the Prime Minister spoke to the country. We were ramping up to alert level 3, with alert level 4 kicking in at 11:59 PM on Wednesday, 25 March 2020 for four weeks. (This later became “at least” 4 weeks.) In alert level 3, all schools and tertiary establishments needed to close, as well as non-essential businesses. At level 4, absolutely everything except essential services were closed.

We said good-bye to the students and wished them well in the upcoming weeks. With such a high death rate compared to other illnesses, who knew who would survive or not. It sounds morbid but is the truth. So the well-wishes were from a place of concern and care.

On Tuesday, the teaching team assembled and brainstormed. We had learned the Government had moved forward the school holidays (term break) to help all teachers prepare. We hammered out a 4 week learning plan with the ability to extend it to 6, and then to 8, weeks if need-be. Our IT guy came in and finalized our network settings so we could connect remotely. Even though it seemed like it would be a long day, we seemed to have most things wrapped up by 10:30 AM. By 12 PM, we all were leaving. I have to admit, I was extremely sad again. I didn’t know if some of us would survive this pandemic. I was moreso worried about myself not surviving, not saying how I truly felt as we said good-bye, more than anything.

My husband and I hit the supermarket on the way home for final supplies before we shut ourselves in. Some of the shelves were still sparse but we stocked up more than we had in previous weeks. We wished the people we know in the supermarket well. It had been a hard week or so since the whole panic shopping thing had started, and we sincerely hoped they would be well. Since both my husband and I have medical conditions which put us at risk, we wanted to isolate ourselves as much as possible.

So, by around 1 PM on Tuesday, 24 March 2020, we isolated ourselves, about 36 hours before the nation isolated itself from one another.

My husband had a change of heart regarding some plants at work, so he went in on Wednesday morning to get them; I stayed home.

Wednesday was a difficult day. I woke up about 15 minutes later than I usually do for work. At my computer, I had a hard time concentrating. Coping was a struggle as well. Amazing that, even though I love staying home, not being given a choice suddenly made me want to go out. I decided to not work so hard and take it easy on Wednesday. It was a day of transition.

Today, Thursday, 26 March 2020, was the first official day of isolation. I admit that I didn’t get up until 8 AM instead of my normal 7 AM. The sleep-in felt good. Once I had my bowl of cereal, I started working, and the progress I made on our online platform was pretty solid.

After lunch, my husband and I went for a walk down to the reserve close to our house. The clouds had cleared to a sunny, warm, autumnal day, and he and I took a path we hadn’t taken for a while. Everyone we met socially distanced themselves to the requisite 2 meters, but most were friendly and bright. I think this was something to do with what Prime Minster Ardern said, and struck a nerve with Kiwis: “Be kind.” Most people were. It was nice.

I felt invigorated after the walk. At my computer, I achieved a lot more. And that evening, the feeling of accomplishments rolled over me. I was happy. I was proud. If even most days during the lockdown were like this, I would be happy.

Overall, the first day in lockdown wasn’t too bad. I’m sure my tune will change eventually, but today was a good day. Let’s hope these lockdown measures are good for the country, and we can severely dampen, if not kill, this virus in our community so we can get back to living how we did only a few short months ago.