Outside Little Tiger Chinese Immersion School, kindergarteners form a line in front of a newly-installed outdoor sink, each of them sporting face masks and plastic shields. Taking turns, they step onto a small yellow stool, wash their hands for a supervised 20 seconds and leap down in a mad dash toward the playground. It is recess time, but for kindergarten teacher Yuxia Lui, this is no break. While her students play, she is disinfecting her new outdoor classroom.
“During the Covid situation, teachers have devoted a lot of their time to do extra work to help students to learn safely,” Liu says.
Originally from the Guangdong Province on the north shore of the South China Sea, Liu earned her master’s degree in teaching Chinese as a second language. While studying, she met her husband, a Texas native seeking to learn the Chinese language in China.
“We thought that it might be easier for me to find a job in the U.S., than him finding a job in China,” she says. “So, we decided to move to the U.S.”
Liu has been teaching at Little Tiger since 2018. The school is committed to teaching all subjects in Mandarin.
“I felt familiar and welcome, like going back to a Chinese speaking environment again, and ... by seeing so many young kids whose native language is English speaking Chinese in our school,” Liu says.
In March, the school informed Liu she would be teaching classes virtually for the remainder of the semester due to Covid-19. Keeping her young students focused in a virtual environment was an immediate concern.
“It's challenging in terms of how to get my students engaged … It's hard for them to just sit in front of a computer for a long period,” she says. “And most of them still need parents' help because they don't even know how to use a computer.”
Technology has been a challenge for Liu as well. Her mornings during remote learning are spent configuring laptops, tablets, cameras, cables and adapters. She utilizes multiple webcams to create an immersive classroom experience including flashcard games, story time and even a virtual snack time. And while she recognizes virtual class is possible, it cannot replace the experience of in-person learning.
“Kids, they learn from doing and playing,” she says. “Like in a classroom, they have a lot of opportunities to learn by hands-on activities because those activities are a better way, and a more engaging way, for students to learn.”
Little Tiger was founded by Meggie Chou in 2015. Chou has taught Mandarin in Austin since 2006 through her all-ages program Chinese With Meggie. She opened Little Tiger to offer her younger students a unique educational opportunity.
“Our students are immersed in a different kind of culture every single moment,” Chou says. “For young children, that's very powerful.”
Chou informed her team in July that students would be returning to school in September. The school spent two months building an outdoor classroom for each class, installing outdoor hand washing stations, adding air purifiers and fans to all indoor classrooms and providing personal protective equipment like masks for teachers and students.
“I feel it is the right thing to do, to protect the community, protect teachers,” Chou says. “It’s expensive, but we just had to do it.”
Chou estimates the school spent between $20,000 and $30,000 on safety precautions and they’re not alone. Schools across Central Texas made large investments in response to the pandemic. AISD has paid an estimated $46 million in Covid-related expenses, according to the Austin American Statesman. That breaks down to around $560 per student, compared to Little Tiger’s investment of an estimated $322-$483 per student. AISD has reported 295 positive Covid-19 cases since September 8, with 125 students and 159 faculty members testing positive. According to Lui, Little Tiger has had zero cases so far.
“I feel really proud of that,” Liu says. “I feel proud of that because I know it's not easy for a school to continue to function, to guarantee school is a safe place for students to learn”
But Little Tiger is just one school, not an entire district. With a 14-person staff teaching 62 students between pre-k and 3rd grade, Chou believes their size has helped their pandemic response.
“We are a small community so it’s easier for us to respond,” she says.
Plus, studies show transmission rates are much lower among children who are 9 years old or younger. And while most of the Little Tiger’s students commute to the Central Austin school from as far as Cedar Park and Round Rock, the school doesn’t use a bus system so students commute to school in their own vehicles.
“Families come to us because they want to come to us,” Chou says. “They basically drive 30 minutes, 20 minutes, every morning to our school.”
One thing that Little Tiger and AISD do have in common, though, is that classes for both have returned to remote learning following Thanksgiving break, and will be held virtually through the end of the semester.
“We knew that starting in November, the situation would probably go bad because of the holiday season and flu season,” Chou says.
For Liu and her students, virtual learning is now a familiar process. And while she might not know what challenges the future holds, she’s prepared to do what she’s already done so many times this year — adapt.
“I don't know a better way to prepare for the unknown,” she says. “I think I would just keep doing what I have done, and then take everyone's safety as my priority.”
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