I live and work in Saigon, Vietnam, at the large International School of Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnam has come out on top in Southeast Asia as one country that has successfully controlled the virus.
It recorded its first two cases in Jan. 28 on flights from China and suspended all flights from China on Feb. 1, followed by all international flights on March 25. The country went on full lockdown and we started teaching from home after the Tet holiday, at the beginning of February.
After 13 weeks of lockdown and remote learning, on May 4, all schools were mandated to return to class. Vietnam was declared virus-free. This decision was made after mass quarantines, expansive contact tracing and apparent containment of the disease.
After much consternation and preparing to meet safety protocols, students arrived in staggered order of grades, secondary first, then primary. They were responsible for bringing three clean or disposable masks for rotation during the day.
Parents were not allowed on campus, as that would widen the risk of exposure. Every morning, students lined up a meter apart and teachers took turns for temperature-check duty.
Tape was placed in metered distances on the floors, stairs and hallways to delineate where to stand at the canteen, in the halls, and where to eat at lunch tables. Food was brought in from home and no school lunches were served until the third week. We adjusted lunch and recess times to accommodate students and maximize spaces.
Considering it was about 100 degrees F and 80 percent humidity, it was excruciating to wear a mask all day long from 7:15 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. A veritable petri dish on your face. Recycled carbon dioxide mixed with sweat. Heat rash. Yet everyone, students and faculty alike, complied. Students were great about wearing them because they were thrilled to be back, although we had to monitor their outdoor activity level in the heat. We soon discovered masks were also preventing colds; the nurse's office reported 95 percent less activity in the six weeks we were back in person, other than bumps and bruises.
We spaced out where students worked in the classrooms and many teachers provided individual bags with school supplies for the students to use.
In my art room, we gathered all art equipment after each class, and sprayed everything down with alcohol. Students washed their hands frequently or used sanitizer leaving the classrooms. Cleaners came in and washed tables and floors a few times a day.
Our air conditioning was set at a relatively warm temperature, which made it even more unpleasant, but the Vietnamese government insisted the virus proliferated in colder air. As weeks went by, we ratcheted it lower, only to give us some minor respite. By mid-June, masks were no longer mandated, and business was back to the new normal, though the economy had been hit hard, especially tourism.
Sadly, on July 25, Vietnam announced two new cases in the northern city of Danang, 600 miles north of Ho Chi Minh, but the origin of the virus is still unknown. Having said that, Danang was under lockdown and the airport closed to all incoming and outgoing flights within 24 hours. Exercising caution, if mandated, we will also resume lockdown again.
A woman explained to me that this was like any point in Vietnamese history, the virus is the enemy and they will do their best to win the war. Solid (authoritarian) leadership, cooperative communities, proud citizens and a shared goal. This is what allowed Vietnam to be successful in controlling the virus for at least 100 wonderful days.
This outbreak in Danang may or may not affect our schools in Ho Chi Minh reopening the first week of August, but only time will tell. I believe remote learning or teaching in a hybrid manner is the safest option until American communities can work together across the country to minimize the virus with cooperative adherence to strict lockdowns, contact tracing and distancing while wearing a mask. Perhaps then Americans can enjoy 100 virus-free days.
Cheilaugh Garvey, formerly of Guilford, lives and works in Saigon, also known as Ho Chi Minh City, in Vietnam. She teaches elementary art at the International School of Ho Chi Minh City. She has been an art teacher for nearly 30 years and worked internationally for nearly a decade inluding Tunisia and China prior to Vietnam.