Around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a gargantuan effect on learning and schools. Within the United States, 48 out of 50 states have closed schools for some period of time, with some states (Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Nevada, Vermont, and Virginia) closing for the rest of the academic year. Most schools are teaching through online classes, using Zoom or Skype in an attempt to replicate the classroom experience. But what about studying abroad, an experience that simply cannot be replicated with a webcam? I spoke with Caroline Knox, a junior at BB&N who had been studying for a semester in Rome, and Kate Berkley, a Bowdoin graduate who taught English in Vienna, Austria, through a joint Fulbright scholarship with the Austrian Government.
Knox, who had studied at St. Stephens School, an international boarding school in Rome, was in Italy for a total of six weeks. The school did not take any proactive measures in order to prevent the spread of the outbreak, such as sending foreign students, who compose the majority of St Stephens’ student body, home. However, she shared that she did not feel at risk while there.
“Nothing felt weird or different. It was just something we saw on the news, but it didn’t feel real,” Knox said when asked about how the virus changed life in Italy before she was sent home. Knox returned to the United States on March 8th, after all foreign students in Italy were sent home. She had to complete a two-week self-quarantine but has not been tested. Although she had the option to take online classes with BB&N, Knox chose to continue taking online classes through St. Stephens. When the outbreak ends, she says that she would still like to return to Rome.
I also spoke with Kate Berkley, who was in the middle of her second year as an English teacher in Austria. Working through a program with Fulbright, she taught at two public schools in Vienna. On March 14th, Sebastian Kurz, the chancellor of Austria, announced the closing of all non-essential businesses and began closing universities and schools. Although most schools have been closed since March 16th, some schools are open for small children who need care, but the majority of students are now home, taking online classes.
Berkley shared that Fulbright had initially announced that the government was going to end all foreign teaching programs early, sending everybody home, meaning that Foreign Language Assistants (FLA’s) like herself would no longer be getting paid. However, the ministry changed their decision after protests from activists, instead simply encouraging FLA’s to return home, while still getting paid. Berkley returned to the US on the last direct flight out of Vienna and returned to Kansas City, MO, where she has recently finished a two-week self-quarantine. She is still teaching her students virtually.
Despite the obvious school closings and massive disruptions to the global economy, schools around the world have managed to keep students and teachers engaged, allowing the continuation of learning on both ends. Education could have quite easily become a casualty of this pandemic, however, learning has persevered through programs like Zoom, allowing people to continue learning across cities, counties, countries, and continents.