The view from Thailand: Here we go again

Endless notifications, strategy changes, letters to parents...Life as a senior leader when new coronavirus infections are reported is not easy

Chris Seal

Teaching In Thailand

As I sat in my office chair at home on Sunday to review paperwork ready for the start of the final week of term, I was in a cheerful mood. I’d made myself a strong cup of tea and an early walk had given me a sense of purpose.

Then my phone buzzed.

Three schools were to be closed on Monday after links established with Covid-19 cases. We had come close ourselves the previous week when our City campus closed after a parent tested positive.

We had spent much of the remainder of that week cauterising all known links with our colleagues across town – a brutal but necessary exercise to preserve the safety of the Riverside campus.

Executive WhatsApp group roared into life, with close and trusted colleagues exchanging thoughts and guidance. Google Docs followed swiftly with a well-thought-through and collaboratively written letter to the school community, acknowledging the concerns that all will have and detailing our actions to come: a major review of the week ahead.

The leadership meeting the following morning scrutinised all the events of the week to come through a new yet familiar lens. What should we do? What reduces risk? What must we cancel? Clarity of thought and another carefully crafted letter written.

We hadn’t done much to advance the educational mission of the school in that hour, but another crisis averted – so we thought.

What now?

The remainder of the day was lost in hypothetical conversations about all the "what ifs" of that week and the marketing team established plans A to F for two major concerts and a speech day. So far. so good.

In the closing stages of an interview with a promising prospective UK-based colleague that evening, my phone started its usual attention-seeking activities.

A case in one of the towers of a local condo. I looked out of the window of the apartment across at the Watermark, where four colleagues and their families reside along with a number of Shrewsbury students and their parents.

Oh no, that’s all we need. More cauterising, and a couple of hours later we were confident of an opening on Tuesday. To sleep.

On Tuesday morning, I exit a perfectly lovely shower to find my nemesis, the iPhone 11, doing its thing. We have a case! A parent of a pupil has tested positive. Half damp from the shower, I get to school as quickly as I can and slump in my chair in the Riverside principal’s office.

Surrounded by those erstwhile and brilliant colleagues already mentioned, we set to work. The school is closed within the hour, wonderfully supportive parents taking home brilliantly compliant children. Letters posted. Done.

A submarine under pressure 

This week has been a flashback to March 2020. I still recall being halfway through my groceries in a rather plush food court when my phone disrupted my choice of teabags.

Phone call after phone call about cases involving famous actors, school closures and the prospect of the Ministry of Education stepping in. The relentless build-up of pressure was a little like the creaking that occurs in submarines at extreme depth – when will it break?

A parent I worked with some years ago described fathering his youngest son as "death by 1,000 cuts". He retracted his comment quickly as he knew it wasn’t the right way to describe a much-loved son, but I knew what he meant.

All schools in this pandemic have either been the submarine on the bottom or the victim of those 1,000 cuts; it just keeps coming.

Now that we are closed, there is a terrible mixture of emotion. Deep sadness at sitting in an empty school.
Enormous relief that, thankfully, the infections across our community seem to be very limited indeed. Huge frustration that a series of brilliantly conceived events are cancelled or postponed. Closure may bring operational clarity but it also brings emotional turmoil.

We hope sincerely that we will be open again after the Songkran break, and we also hope this cycle of events will stop soon.

I used to like my iPhone.

Chris Seal is principal of Shrewsbury International School Bangkok, Riverside Campus and Tes Global Advisory Board member

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