Tag Archives: COVID-19

Stuck in a Korean “Covid Jail”

“You have to stay here,” the woman in the hazmat suit said.

“But I need to catch my connecting flight to Jeju, where I live. It leaves in two hours. I can’t stay here,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady and show that I was in control of my emotions, which I most certainly was not.

“No. You stay in Seoul. PCR test.”

“But, I have a negative PCR test result from America that I took before boarding the plane. I will take the PCR when I land in Jeju.”

“No. You cannot go to Jeju. Stay here.”

End of discussion. No more bargaining. I was taken to a cubicle by another hazmat-suited worker, where I would remain for the better part of two hours. I was given a new mask to wear, one that had two thick rubber bands to hold it in place and cut into my face, leaving marks. No water. No food. No access to a toilet. I was contaminated in their eyes. Someone to avoid, less I give them my germs, the ones that might contain Covid.

As I sat in my isolation chamber, becoming more and more restless and agitated as the time slowly ticked by, I called my boss, my friend, and my parents to tell them what happened and try to make sense of what would happen next. I called Korean Air to inform them of my detainment and inability to make my connecting flight, which I then lost.

After what felt like ages, I was finally given more information. I would be given a PCR test, taken to retrieve my luggage, and then take a bus to a temporary quarantine facility, where I would wait until my results came back. If I tested negative, I would be allowed to rebook my flight to Jeju, where I would be able to spend my 10-day quarantine in my own home. But if I tested positive, I would be sent to another quarantine facility outside of Seoul, where I would quarantine until I was told I could leave. Things weren’t looking good for me.

A little while later, I was escorted, along with a few other pariahs, along a corridor, down the elevator, and outside, into below freezing weather, to wait in line for what can only be described as the most invasive and painful PCR test I’ve ever had.

After getting off the bus at the quarantine facility, I struggled with my three large bags, as the hazmat suits stared at me, offering no help at all. To say the facility was depressing doesn’t do it justice. I walked down the fluorescent-lit hallway to my room, dragging my bags behind me. The door to my room opened onto a small “holding area,” beyond which was another door. My room was sparse, containing a twin-sized bed with a hard mattress wrapped in unclean plastic, a bedside table, a table and two chairs, a TV on a stand, a small fan, a wardrobe, a mini-fridge, and a landline phone. I had a basic private bathroom with a shower, a lone hand towel, and no soap (I’m in here due to Covid, yet I can’t wash my hands…the irony!). Luckily the wardrobe had a blanket and a pillow, so I didn’t have to lay on the plastic-wrapped mattress. I was shocked to find that the facility did not have wifi access, but I was lucky that I live in Korea so that I was able to use the data on my phone.

The only towel I was given. This was to dry off after my shower, too.

I was told the wait would be 8-10 hours. After a 15-hour flight, several hours in the airport, and the stress of the day, I tried to get some sleep. I was awoken abruptly around 2:00am by a gruff hazmat suit who stormed into my room without so much as a knock. In Korean, I was directed to sit at the table. For the record, I don’t speak Korean, but I figured it out using context clues and body language. A laminated paper was placed in front of me informing me that I had tested positive for Covid. Tears came to my eyes, fear and dread setting in. But I’m not even sick, I thought. I picked up the paper to read more information about what would happen to me next, but hazmat suit snatched it from my hands, barking, “No touch!”

The instructions said that I would be taken by ambulance in the morning to another facility in another (undisclosed) city for my quarantine. I was to take my luggage, but prior to leaving, I was to pack everything I would use in the next facility separately, as all of my personal belongings used at the facility would be incinerated upon my departure and any electronics would likely be damaged during the cleaning and disinfecting process. I would be responsible for all of the costs for the government quarantine, but no amount was given, as it would depend on the number of days I had to remain there.

The reality of the situation set in, and I couldn’t hold back my tears, as anger, frustration, and fear pulsed through me. My worst nightmare had come true. I’d heard about this happening, and I knew it was a risk for me to have traveled home for Christmas, but I hadn’t thought it would actually happen to me. I begged hazmat suit to let me out. I’d quarantine at home, I promised. “You can put an ankle monitor on me if you want. I won’t leave my house at all.” Every request was met with an uncaring “NO!” which only left me spinning out of control. I wasn’t even sick! I had a little bit of a stuffy nose, but that was it. Surely I’m not a danger to society. “Can I see my PCR result?” I asked through my tears, unsure how i could have tested positive after testing negative on twelve rapid antigen tests and three PCRs back home. Like every other request, it was denied. No amount of pleading changed her mind. Getting tired of my emotional response, she left.

I crumpled. Ripping off the mask, I sobbed, realizing that no matter what, this was my fate. It didn’t make sense. It wasn’t rational. And the sense of injustice I felt couldn’t be squashed. The heat in the room didn’t help the situation either. Hot air blew into the room, making it nearly unbearable. I knew it was -11C outside, but I needed to crack a window. Damn! The windows were bolted shut. Probably to prevent an escape, I thought.

Look carefully at the flags…

After calling everyone (parents, friends, boss) to alert them to my predicament, I collapsed on the bed, mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausted. A few hours later, I was awoken again by my breakfast delivery, a ham and cheese sandwich and bottle of orange juice, along with two small bottles of water. I’m a vegetarian, which I told them when I was detained. No dietary accommodations were made here, they said. Orange juice, it is! Luckily I had a few snacks in my bag that I’d brought from Texas. Mostly cookies, chips, and candy, but hey, it was something.

That first day I was a fighter, doing everything in my power to get myself out of there. The ladies on the other end of my landline got so tired of me calling that they mostly just hung up whenever they heard my voice. The US Embassy tried to help, but they couldn’t make any headway either. As the day progressed, I realized I was stuck.

Lunch and dinner were the same, white rice with some sort of fried meat, kimchi, and three pickle slices. I ate the rice and pickles.

Due to a lack of space at the other facilities, I ended up staying there for four days. Without wifi, and not wanting to drain my data in case I needed it later, I was bored. I watched reruns of old crime shows, like CSI and Law and Order, that played on one of the three English channels. But mostly I slept. The heat was unbearable, and despite the small fan and lack of clothing (I only wore a tank top and pair of sleep shorts), I was burning up. I didn’t have a fever though. My thrice daily temperature checks I had to do confirmed that. After my numerous complaints about the heat and requests to turn it down, one of the hazmat suits brought me a large ice pack, which I would use to cool my body, moving it from my head to my torso to my feet. It helped some.

The days dragged on, and I felt like I’d never be free from that prison. On day four, I was notified that I would be transported to the new facility. My own hazmat suit, gloves, new mask, face shield, and booties arrived with my morning delivery. This is what I was to wear in the ambulance.

I couldn’t even pretend to smile…

To be continued…

Two Years Ago

Two Years Ago

Two years ago, I was well into lockdown and figuring out this thing called online learning.
Two years later, I move around freely and get to be in person at school.

Two years ago, I was living in Jakarta, Indonesia, finishing up my third year.
Two years later, I’m living in Jeju, South Korea, finishing up my second year.

Two years ago, I did all my shopping online and had everything delivered.
Two years later, I pop down to the shops to pick up what I want.

Two years ago, I didn’t own any masks and the idea of wearing one was completely foreign.
Two years later, I have a basket full of colorful cloth masks and mask straps near the door, match them to my outfits, and can’t imagine leaving the house without one.

Two years ago, I was perfecting my banana bread baking skills.
Two years later, I can’t remember the last time I baked banana bread.

Two years ago, the airports were eerily empty.
Two years later, the airports are bustling again.

Two years ago, I was terrified of catching Covid.
Two years later, I’ve had Covid and luckily it wasn’t that bad.

Two years ago, I spent all my time alone.
Two years later, I can be social again.

Two years ago, I never used the words quarantine, PCR test, or travel restrictions.
Two years later, they are part of my everyday vocabulary.

Two years ago, I thought everything would go back to normal soon.
Two years later, I’m not even sure what normal is anymore.

Two years ago, Covid was all people talked about.
Two years later, Covid is all people talk about.

Can it be true? I sure hope so!

Since moving to South Korea in the summer of 2020, there’s been a mandatory quarantine. At first, it was a 14-day quarantine, which meant I stayed here for a year and a half to avoid the isolation. Then, in November 2021, the government dangled a carrot in front of us by saying that anyone fully vaccinated in Korea (which I am) can be exempt from the mandatory quarantine. There were still lots of hoops to jump through, but we were all excited and I booked my flights home for the holidays. Then, shortly before the Christmas holiday was set to begin, they reinstated the mandatory quarantine, only this time it was reduced to 10 days. While it was a pain (and a shit ton of money…3500 USD!) to change my flights, I was able to go home for about a week and a half. Sometime last month the quarantine was further reduced to 7 days, giving us a little more hope.

However, this afternoon, we received very good news in our inbox! The Korean government just released that they are ending the mandatory quarantine period for all fully vaccinated and boosted travelers (even if vaxxed outside of Korea, as long as you go through the process of registering your vaccination with their app). This goes into effect for people vaccinated in Korea on 21 March and for everyone else on 1 April.

While everyone’s pumped about the news, myself included, I can’t help but be skeptical about it. It’s like the boy who cried wolf…they told us once before and changed their mind, they can do it again. For now, I’m not booking any international flights, but it does give me hope for the summer break. I was planning on leaving anyway, but was concerned about the short break with having to factor in quarantine. If I can avoid it, I get more time with my family, which is what I want.

Fingers crossed that it sticks this time!

Covid Chaos

The last thing I want to write about today is Covid. Two years ago today the whole thing kicked off and my school in Jakarta closed and began online learning, never to return to campus through the remainder of the year. Who would have thought this would still dominate our lives after two years?!?

I ended up moving schools and countries, and I’ve been working in Jeju, South Korea since August of 2020. We’ve been extremely fortunate in Korea with Covid, especially in Jeju, and in the over a year and a half that I’ve been at the school, we’ve have fewer than 10 cases in the entire school of over 1,000 students and over 200 faculty and staff. We’ve been on campus for face-to-face learning the majority of the time I’ve been here, only going online a couple of times when there’s been a case in the Junior School last year. Until recently, no one had been online all of this school year.

While the rest of the world (or at least most of it) has decided to get on with Covid after the virus running rampant through schools, we’ve watched from afar, wondering if it had somehow passed us by. Unfortunately it hadn’t passed us by, it was just delayed. Covid has now infiltrated Korean schools and is rapidly spreading around the Junior School. Luckily for them, it hasn’t hit the Middle or Senior Schools, as the vast majority of their students are fully vaccinated. But with the youngest age able to be vaccinated still 12 in Korea, our youngest learners have been hit the hardest.

What started as a slow burn three weeks ago has rapidly progressed to a fast-spreading fire. The protocol here is that whenever a student or teacher tests positive on a rapid antigen test, the entire class and all teachers who have taught them are tested with rapid antigen tests and sent home for the rest of the day. If we find out about a positive case before school begins, the class doesn’t come to school, tests at home, and begins online learning. After a confirmed case is found in a class (PCR positive), that class quarantines at home for 5 days and is taught online. The number of spreadsheets we have going at the moment is incredible. Keeping track of each student who tests positive, the date they can return to school, who their close contacts were, etc. is literally a full-time job at this point.

As of tomorrow, we have 7 classes (out of a total of 21) who will be online learning, and 4 of those were added just today! I can’t imagine finding out late in the day (or in the case of one class today, at 9:00pm!) that you’ll be teaching online tomorrow. The worst part is that it’s hitting our littlest ones the most at the moment, which means we have most of our 3-5 year olds learning online (synchronously with their normal daily schedule). In the case of a couple of classes, the teacher is home sick too and cannot teach online, so we have pulled other teachers and interns in to cover classes and grade levels they have never taught. It’s an all hands on desk situation at the moment. I taught our preschool students online on Monday and let me tell you, it’s not the easiest task.

All of this happening every day makes it difficult to do my “normal” job, as so much time and energy is spent on this situation. If I’m not meeting to discuss who can be on campus/who can’t, finding cover for missing teachers, rearranging schedules, contact tracing (who did you sit by at lunch?), giving pep talks and hugs to students getting Covid tests done in the make-shift testing center in the office, calming down teachers who are stressed to the max, or writing parent communications, then I’m able to work on my other duties (that continue to pile up each day).

I keep wondering when this wave will go through us and we can get back to face-to-face learning for all classes again. This piecemeal thing is killing us!

Year in Photos 2020

One of my annual traditions is reflecting on the past year through photos. Here are my past year in photos reflections- 20142015201620172018, and 2019. While I love telling stories through words, pictures are a great way to tell my story, too.

2020 was a year like no other, as we all know. While most of my previous year in photos include pictures from all the places I traveled that year, 2020 was the year of quarantine, therefore I have fewer places than usual represented in this year’s reflection. I started out the year in Texas, flying back to Jakarta via Dubai on January 2nd. I was able to travel to Borobudur and Lembang in Indonesia before we were quarantined on March 2nd. I went back to Texas in May, where I spent the summer, and then moved to Jeju, South Korea in July. After quarantining in Seoul, I spent the rest of 2020 in Jeju, apart from a couple of quick trips to Seoul. Here are the highlights of my 2020, in chronological order. Which ones are your favorite?

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Should I stay, or should I go? This is the question that’s been haunting me the past couple of months. It’s the question on all of our minds at the moment, and I’m sorry to say, I don’t yet have the answer. In a non-Covid world, the answer is simple. I’d go. In a heartbeat. No questions asked. Not even a question, in fact. But in a Covid world, with so much uncertainty, it becomes much more complicated to decide. What’s the best thing to do? What’s the safest? What’s in my best interest?

The question on my mind, as an international school educator, is whether or not to go back home this summer to see my family. I always go home (well, there was that one year I traveled Europe instead) for the summer, where I spend time with my family and see my friends I haven’t seen in a while and drive all around the great state of Texas to visit far-flung relatives and eat my favorite foods (in Austin, mostly) and shop for all the things I always buy in America (here’s looking at you, tampons with applicators, Mexican spices, deodorant, toothpaste, makeup, all the books, and much more).

I mean, I didn’t get see them at Christmas (another one of those trips I almost always make), which means if I don’t go home, it’ll have been a year without seeing them except for through a screen. And then there’s the new baby who’s due in May, a new niece that I can’t wait to hold and cuddle and love on. If I don’t go home, she’ll be more than 6 months old the first time I meet her. Also, I could use some family time, what with a worldwide pandemic causing all kinds of stress and undue worry and anxiety that we’re all dealing with.

But with Covid and all the stress and risk that comes with it, do I dare? Going home means leaving my safe bubble on Jeju (where the cases are really low…like ridiculously low…as in about 500 total cases since the pandemic started and only one death) and going to America, where the cases are crazy high and the death count is astronomical. Not to mention the actual travel there, with long haul flights, crammed in a small space with lots of people and germs galore. And then there’s the Covid tests, the ones that have given me anxiety ever since the last one I had in Seoul during quarantine, where I screamed and cried for a long time after. I’ll do anything to avoid that again. It’s not just one test either, it’s five at minimum. I shudder at the thought. Quarantine, while now only when I return to Korea (since Texas has lifted all restrictions), is still not something I’m excited about. Frankly, I had enough of that in 2020.

The biggest fear I have though is if I actually get Covid. Apart from the obvious fear of contracting a horrendous respiratory illness that could kill me, I’m worried that contracting the virus might mean I lose my job. I love my job and my life in Jeju, and I don’t want to give that up, but the reality is that if I were to get Covid in the states, I could very well lose my job (legitimately- I’ve checked) if I were not able to quickly recover and return back to work. Is that a risk I’m willing to take? Does choosing not to go home for fear of catching Covid and possibly losing my job mean I love my family any less? Does it make me selfish? Am I overreacting?

What’s the right decision? I feel like I’m damned if I do, and damned if I don’t. I thought that writing about it would make the decision clear, that processing the pros and cons would somehow show me what to do, but it hasn’t. Does anyone have any advice?

Exactly One Year Ago

I’ll always remember March 2nd, and not just because it’s Dr. Seuss’s birthday or Texas Independence Day. I’ll remember March 2nd because on March 2, 2020, everything as I knew it changed.

I was living in Jakarta, and while the world grappled with the effects of Covid-19, we were content to continue with life as normal, as if we were invincible. No masks, no social distancing, no restrictions.

Well…that was until March 2nd. March 2nd was the day Indonesia announced their first confirmed case. It was the day one of our teachers was hospitalized because she was suspected to have Covid-19 (spoiler alert: she tested positive and recovered a month later). It was the day we began what was supposed to be a 14-day quarantine period, one that turned out to be 80 days for me. It was also the day we decided to move to online learning.

As I sit here, safe in my home in Jeju, happy that we now have all students back on campus every day (as of yesterday) after a few months of 2/3 of our students on campus and 1/3 online, I can’t help but think of my colleagues and students back in Jakarta. They went online a year ago and have never went back to face to face school. That’s a whole year of online learning. A whole year of working from home. A whole year of isolation. My heart breaks for them. As tough as I am, I don’t know if I could have made it. I think it might have broken me by now.

I commend them for sticking with it and doing so well in spite of the rotten circumstances they’ve had to endure. I know it’s a long shot, but I sure hope they get to return to some sort of normalcy before the year ends. I can’t imagine what it must be like to have only ever met your students online.

Hang in there ACG! I’m sending you my love and support…you’ve got this!

Thankful for the Busyness Today!

After a week off for term break, our virtual school resumed today. My work day began at 7:00am and finished a little after 9:00pm. To be honest, I’m tired and ready for bed, but more than anything, I’m thankful for the busyness of today. After nine days off, the days had started to run together, and by the end of the week, I couldn’t motivate myself to do anything. While this is a less than ideal situation, and I would 100% rather be in the classroom, I grateful for the routine of my virtual school day. I was excited to chat with my students again today, and while many of them were tired today from a week of staying up late and playing, I can tell they were glad to be back, too.

After our first three weeks of virtual school, we reflected as a leadership team, taking into account student, parent, and staff feedback about their experiences with online learning, and made some adjustments for this last term of school. We realized that it was unrealistic to expect primary students to attend virtual school all day like they would at real school. We scaled back the expectations, and now students have four homeroom learning days and one single-subject day. This means that on the four homeroom days, students take part in one lesson each of literacy, math, unit of inquiry, and PE per day. This is in addition to a morning message video, which may be pre-recorded or done as a morning meeting on ZOOM. We all do one ZOOM class meeting per homeroom day.

On their single-subject days, students have one lesson each of art, music, PE, library, Bahasa Indonesia or Mandarin, and Religion or Indonesian Studies. On the single-subject days, the homeroom teacher has time to plan and prep lessons for the rest of the week and give student feedback, as the only requirement is to post a morning message video and the daily learning overview with the students’ schedule. My single-subject day is on Wednesday, which is perfect for me. I can prep for Monday’s and Tuesday’s lessons on Sunday, and Thursday’s and Friday’s lessons on Wednesday. It’ll be nice to have a bit of a breather in the middle of the week, too. I hope that this new schedule is helpful for the students and that they no longer feel overwhelmed with everything they have to do.

Another change we’ve made is to be more mindful of screen time. We’ve encouraged teachers to assign more offline activities during virtual school so that they are not online all day. I know how being on a screen all day affects me, so I can’t imagine how the students must feel!

How’s virtual school going for you? Have you made any changes?

Six-Word Memoirs: Quarantine Edition

I’ve always loved six-word memoirs, and the other day I saw a fellow slicer used them to slice about her feelings lately. Here’s my version.

I’m trapped inside, can’t go out.

Some days are fine, others not.

Body aches and lots of sleep.

Good thing is I’m noticing more.

Connecting with friends through a screen.

Taking a break on the daily.

No end in sight. Crave normalcy.

Coronavirus please go away sometime soon.

What I’ve Learned in Three Weeks of Quarantine

Today is Day 24 of quarantining at home, and apart from a 3-hour trip to the dentist on Day 18, I haven’t left my house. I’m not married, no kids, no pets, and no roommates, so it’s been a pretty lonely three weeks. Other than my video chats and phone calls with family, friends, colleagues, and students, I don’t get much interaction with others. I’m trying to check my privilege, as I realize I have a comfortable home, working electricity and plumbing, consistent Internet, enough food, and I don’t have to worry about money, which I know many people in the world don’t have at this time, but today I’m feeling the effects of isolation.

Here’s what I’ve learned in my 3+ weeks of quarantine:

The hair on my legs seems to have stopped growing. I haven’t shaved my legs since I went into lockdown, and by looking at them, you wouldn’t really know. I’m way past the prickly stage, too.

I’m not a self-motivated person at home. Despite all the advice on the internet touting, “You have all the time in the world, you should do all the things you’ve always said you never have time for! There’s no excuse now,” I seem to find an excuse.

My attention span, which if I’m being honest was already wavering (I blame the constant interruptions of modern society for that one), is down to a few minutes at a time. I have started 9 books. Nine. And I haven’t finished one yet. Now, I’m a multiple-books-at-a-time person by nature, but this is overboard. I can’t even watch a TV show all the way through in one sitting. What is going on?

At first, I was excited about cooking and was eating way too much food because, hello, what else have I got to do?, but now all the food in the house is boring. I eat when my stomach is growling, but it’s all pretty blah. Well, except for the fresh-out-of-the-oven bread slathered in butter, but I can’t eat that every day, can I?

I crave routine and structure, and I need to leave my house to have a sense of normalcy. I’m not a work-from-home person. Guess I can throw away those dreams of becoming a travel blogger.

My moods fluctuate from really happy to complete boredom or frustration. Yesterday I was so full of energy, and today, nothing. It’s a dice roll each day I wake up.

I am hoping that things get easier next week when virtual school starts back up again, as the school day will give me a routine to follow. What have you learned while in quarantine?