'Taiwan schools grapple with corona-phobia' by Aiden Yeh

15th February 2020

It’s difficult to sneeze nowadays without paranoid people looking at you as if you’re the carrier of the deadly novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) - the SARS-like disease that has recently been classified as a global crisis by the World Health Organization (WHO) [1]. Coughing has become even more stigmatized as it could be an early sign of illness symptomatic of coronavirus. When we see news reports about the number of people affected by this viral infection, and those who have been discriminately labeled as patient-under-investigation or PUI [2], we do feel sorry for them, and yet many of us feel confused as it is mind-boggling to fathom how this new strain of virus could have been transmitted from animals to humans. Most of us continue to hope that as long as it doesn’t happen to us, we’ll be okay; and as long as we’re not affected, we are fine. But are we, really? Sadly, the effects of coronavirus have swiftly trickled down from actually being sick to being quarantined even if you’re not showing any signs of the illness - you were just at the wrong place at the wrong time, e.g. transiting in Hong Kong or being on the same flight with one asymptomatic passenger. Some are just unlucky to be stranded in an airport where a travel ban was imposed – such as our local and foreign-exchange students whose study plans have been disrupted and dismally affected by the onslaught of this infectious disease. It has now spread and touched a very sensitive nerve, one that may have severe repercussions for us all, particularly for students in Taiwan.

At our international office, I see the ramifications of the spread of not just the disease, but the politicizing of this health crisis. As the only ‘foreign languages’ university in Taiwan, we send hundreds of our students abroad (including Mainland China) either for a student-exchange or internship program; and likewise, we receive a number of foreign students from our partner universities from different countries across the globe. With the new spring semester about to start in a couple of weeks, many of our students were looking forward to spending the entire semester abroad. To be able to study at a partner university, there’s a long list of requirements to prepare e.g. visa, proof of acceptance, English language proficiency test scores (IELTS, TOEFL, etc.), transcript of records - which means showing that they’ve passed all the required subjects, etc. Needless to say, they had to go through the nitty gritty application process and the strenuous internal interviews even before they could make arrangements for their travel plans. All that preparation and the money already spent on plane tickets and accommodation have gone to waste. Students from HK, Macau, and Mainland China are no longer permitted to the country as part of the travel ban, and now Taiwan has been included in the list of countries banned to travel to countries like the Philippines, where many Asian students go to study ESL [3]. We in academia are indirectly suffering, and the weight of stress inflicted upon us and on to our students can be heavy to bear. An increasing number of international students coming to our university this semester have cancelled their plans to come while our own students have been forbidden to travel. Our staff are affected in the same way our students are; we are left wondering when this will end.

With the travel ban in place, the Ministry of Education (MOE) has postponed the opening of classes in higher education to March 02 [4]. International schools have also pushed back the start of their classes to February 10 [5], while local elementary and high schools will not begin classes until February 25 [6]. There is a provision for parents (of students aged 12 below) to take time off work, but only one parent is allowed to do this. This delay in the opening of classes will mean that the spring semester will last till mid-July leading to a shorter summer vacation. However, private kindergarten schools have now resumed classes, while public kindergartens remain closed. The MOE has promised to hand out 500,000 masks for the children in private kindergartens but only to be used if they’re feeling poorly. With the delay of classes, many schools have switched to online instructions. Although e-learning platforms have been widely used in Taiwan, many are simply a repository for learning materials. Some teachers probably do not have the training for or experience of teaching online and using synchronous digital tools and applications.

The current medical threat is a health concern, and therefore it should not be taken lightly, but it is undeniably making things rather inconvenient for all. It also ratchets up political bickering, and the saturation of news media reports that exhort fear and panic among people do not help as they trigger people to become racist and xenophobes. All of these can lead to chaos, and pose an imminent danger of becoming too politically (in)correct while we see the damage to our education and economy happening in front of our eyes.

I wonder how you (your students and the institution you work in) are affected, how are you coping, and what is being done to resolve some of the issues mentioned above?



About Dr Aiden Yeh

Dr. Aiden Yeh is an Assistant. Professor and Director of Academic Cooperation & Exchange Section at Wenzao Ursuline University of Languages, Taiwan, where she also serves as Academic Adviser for Southeast Asian Studies Program. She has a PhD in Applied Linguistics (University of Birmingham, UK) and MSc in ELT Management (University of Surrey, UK).

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