It’s late evening in Johor Bahru, Malaysia’s southernmost city.
I’m sitting next to the window as I write this, looking down at the road below.
A queue of traffic has formed on both sides of the lights. Food delivery drivers are pulling up at local restaurants to collect orders. Mopeds are weaving in and out of the cars.
If you wanted you could grab your apartment key, phone, wallet and passport, put on your mask and head for a cafe, shop or other business.
Back to lockdown
There’s very much a feeling of normality as you look at everything from above.
But for us teachers in Malaysia, the reality is somewhat different: we have been teaching remotely again since 2 November and many schools won’t return until 20 January at the earliest.
The reason? A rise in 40 cases over two weeks in Johor state and similar numbers in five other states as well.
They take the Covid-19 situation very seriously here – the nations of South-East Asia are used to dealing with airborne respiratory diseases (think back to SARS or MERS) and have both the capability and appreciation of responding quickly. This is borne out by statistics.
A well-drilled operation
As of 11 November (since the beginning of the outbreak), there have been 42,872 confirmed cases here in Malaysia. Of those, 11,497 are currently active, 31,073 have recovered and there have been 302 deaths.
These are nowhere near the levels seen in many other parts of the world.
A strict movement control order (MCO) in force from March until June and lifted very gradually from that point onwards is one reason why they have been so successful.
While it has been lifted slightly – I was unable to fly out to start my new job until they were – there are still many tough restrictions in place.
For example, tourists are still not allowed to visit Malaysia; only a limited number of categories may enter including diplomats, skilled workers and those holding professional visit passes. On our flight from London to Kuala Lumpur, there were 17 people – my family made up three of them!
And so, as noted, when a small rise was detected, a revised MCO was brought into place with brutal efficiency.
Tough but we're ready
For all involved in education here, there is an undoubted sense of frustration in returning to online learning, while acknowledging that it is necessary.
The situation throughout society is much less strict than earlier in the year and this has made the situation easier to accept for all concerned.
As teachers, there is a greater sense of optimism this time around. We know what worked and didn’t work last time. We have developed our technical skills as well as our practice, with a focus on keeping everything straightforward.
While students’ work may be set online, it doesn’t necessarily have to be done online – activities could be completed in exercise books, then photographed and uploaded.
There is also a greater desire to innovate, keeping everyone connected and involved each day: events such as Deepavali, Remembrance Day, talent competitions and Christmas shows will still occur – but online, in a different format.
Getting on with the job
There is a sense of irony for me, having arrived here after unforeseen delays, only for the first interactions with my new class to be via a screen.
It would be easy to be overwhelmed by this, or find frustrations turning into hopelessness.
But as the CEO of Cobis, Colin Bell, remarked recently, these are among the challenges that international teachers are accustomed to facing.
Flexibility and the ability to make real-time adaptations are unwritten prerequisites for teaching outside of your home nation.
The pandemic has brought home how vital these skills are inside our home nations as well.
Chris Barnes is Head of Year 6 at Crescendo-HELP International School, Johor Bahru, Malaysia. He tweets as @MrBarnesTweets