Dealing with Pandemics:  COVID-19 Comes to Morocco

Today we dressed to do our weekly grocery shopping and for Audrey to have her Sunday afternoon Spanish tutorial session.  Before that, we slept until we woke up: Audrey around 8:00 and Brian not until nearly 10:30. He was not being lazy; it was the last stretching tendril of yesterday’s therapeutic Pajama Day.

Yep, yesterday we achieved the normally-unthinkable-but-occasionally-mandatory accomplishment of not changing out of pajamas between opening our eyes in the morning and closing them at night.  Be assured, we brushed our teeth; we just did not get dressed all day. Brian napped early in the afternoon. Audrey napped later in the afternoon. We played games of cribbage (all of which Audrey won, including a ripe skunking of Brian in the last game).  Brian made a delectable spaghetti sauce, pasta, and garlic bread for dinner. All fairly normal activity, but in PJs. We did not merely want it; after the past week, we needed it. Need, as in restoring sanity after a week that seems more like at least a month instead of merely seven days.

We cannot believe that a week ago we were at the tail end of GWA’s Winter Break, set to enjoy its last two nights at home together in a relaxed “vacation from the vacation” state.  Brian had spent Saturday-to-Saturday in Prague with college friends Nic and Lyle. They both had visited us in Morocco separately with their families last year, but the three of them had not been together in nearly 24 years, when they were groomsmen in our wedding, and the three of them had not hung out together without wives or fiancées since graduating from Claremont McKenna College 31 years ago.  They saw touristy things in untouristy ways, and – geeky guys that they are – they texted pictures to their wives of them being wild and crazy in various libraries from the last 500 years scattered around town.

Meanwhile, at Brian’s insistence Audrey escaped campus life by taking one last mama-daughter trip with Charlotte, this time just an hour southwest along the Moroccan coast to the resort Mazagan, halfway between Azemmour and El Jadida.  They lounged around Mazagan, sat by the pool reading, went to the hamam, took advantage of every spa service available, shopped in El Jadida for a Moroccan lamp that Audrey has wanted for us to take to Panama when we move, and enjoyed time together without Brian living up to his skinflint reputation.  In the days that Audrey was home alone, she relished not only the quiet of the campus on holiday, but also the culinary treat of not having to avoid cooking seafood with allergic Brian or Charlotte around. She dove deep into preparing and devouring a Thai shrimp and vegetable rice dish; salmon with maple-mustard glaze, asparagus, and rice; scallops with a beurre-blanc sauce over rice; and garlic shrimp with gritz smothered in green onions and cheddar cheese.

But it was not the vacationing that drained us.  That time fueled us back up after what proved to be a very strenuous seven weeks between starting back to school in January and heading out for Winter Break at the end of February.  Instead, what drained out tanks started not on Monday when school resumed, but on Sunday when we had planned to enjoy one final day of Winter Break relaxing together at home. Alas, it was not to be.  Coronavirus stole it from us.

With the global frenzy over China’s novel coronavirus growing into a pandemic (despite the World Health Organization changing its previous definition of a pandemic so it could avoid applying that label to this outbreak), we and the rest of GWA’s Senior Leadership Team members followed closely developments from our respective Winter Break locales.  By Sunday morning, Audrey decided we needed to put out another communication to parents, and circulated a draft to SLT members soliciting our comments and suggestions. Then, at noon, the Crisis Management Team met to talk through all the issues relevant to protecting our community when everyone returned to campus after the break – like whether staff and students should self-quarantine (or at least stay off campus) for 14 days if they had traveled during the break to COVID-19 breakout locations; what locations globally we would include on that “hot spots” list; and how to get a health survey out to all GWA employees (including those without email accounts) to screen before 7:00 am on Monday morning for people who might need to stay off campus for an incubation period – we then had the task of communicating out the protocols we were putting into place effective the next morning.  Of course, that meant having to translate communications and then send out the communications while our in-house translator and marketing staff were still on break. Instead of relaxing on our last day of Winter Break, we both were on the clock for at least 10 hours. It was not how we had envisioned for the end of our recuperation week. Such is the life of school administrators, particularly in a world in which COVID-19 hysteria comes knocking on your door. And this was all before Morocco announced its first confirmed case of COVID-19.

Somehow all the division heads succeeded in getting responses to the health survey from all GWA employees in time for school to start.  That said, some people traveling over the break had, indeed, gone to breakout areas and had to start 14-day “quarantine” periods with clocks starting on their respective last day of potential exposure.  Between people on the quarantine list and people just calling in sick (not for COVID-19 reasons) we had about 20 teachers out on Monday, making our Lower and Upper School academic administrative teams do logistical calisthenics to move teachers around during prep periods to ensure every class was covered.  Audrey also initiated daily Crisis Management Team update meetings each morning at 8:15 so that we could keep up with developments and adjust our protocols as needed.

The biggest question for us was at what point we would have to close our campus due to having an insufficient number of faculty at school to cover classes.  The SLT had created a rubric weeks before outlining protocols for when the first case of COVID-19 would be confirmed in Morocco, in Casablanca, and at GWA respectively, along with several other variables and circumstances.  Also, our technology integrationist had worked hard for some time building the structure for initiating the “online school” model currently employed in China, South Korea, and other places around the world hit hard by COVID-19, so we were prepared fairly well to ratchet up the intensity of the challenges we faced.  But we had not yet had the chance to train all our faculty for the possibility of closing the campus and transitioning to the “online school” model. Through incredible efforts of our academic administrators and staff, by Wednesday we had trained everyone and could breathe a collective sigh that, while time to provide more support would help, we could make a fairly seamless transition to “online school” if circumstances dictated it because of staffing realities or if the government declared a general lockdown.

Apart from real challenges of planning and training, the biggest issue in this COVID-19 environment is the impact of hysteria.  Morocco confirmed its first case on Monday, with news of the announcement spreading on Tuesday like…well, like the outbreak of an infectious disease.  A second case was confirmed later in the week. Broadly, we hear all sorts of conspiracy theories. Some people like to emphasize “confirmed” in previous reports of no confirmed cases, suggesting COVID-19 had been in Morocco for weeks before the first case was confirmed last Monday.  Even before the news hit, some parents decided school was too dangerous a place for their children and kept them home. One expat family even withdrew their student, telling the administration of their plans to take the student back home – to a country identified by the CDC and WHO as an outbreak country – to be safe.  Even before news of the first confirmed case, a few students arrived on Monday morning with face masks adding to their fashion attire. Particularly chick were those with mask straps looped around their ears but pulled down under their chins, apparently to avoid the annoyance of having the mask over nose and mouth while keeping it close at hand to pull up in case someone wearing an “I have COVID-19” sign came too close to them.

Brian actually had explored the possibility of bringing some masks back from Prague.  None were to be found there, even though at the time no confirmed cases had appeared in the Czech Republic.  (In the past week, that number has gone from zero cases to 32 confirmed cases.) What Brian did see in Prague were plenty of people speaking Mandarin, Italian, Korean, and Japanese as he traveled around the region by bus, tram, subway, and train.  Paired with the global hysteria and actual global expansion, seeing those people amid everyone else on the public transport reinforced for him the challenge of walking the line between discrimination and prudence: the reality today is that anyone on a bus or metro or tram or train or airplane could be infected and not know it.  One administrator told Audrey that it had taken the entire Winter Break to begin to relax and refuel, and by Wednesday of last week his tank was already empty again.  When Audrey shared this with Brian, he said that the same was true for him, except that his tank was empty again just after Sunday’s marathon work and the entire week back to school has run on fumes.

Having spent last week exhausting ourselves with preparations for contingencies, as our next big challenge we must adjust to this emotionally and energetically volatile new normal, whether temporary or long-term.  Each morning the Crisis Management Team meets for updates and potential adjustments. Meetings may last a few minutes or much longer. We sent out several parent updates last week, though our tracking of those communications shows a portion of our parents simply do not read what we send out, even after messaging through multiple tracks and media.

COVID-19 has claimed some other collateral victims as well.  Virtually every professional development conference planned for this spring has been cancelled by their organizers.  Our entire Arabic department had planned to travel to Jordan last week for the Teacher Skills Forum at the Queen Rania Teacher Academy in Amman.  That and many other PD trips are all being rescheduled for later in 2020 (fall or winter). In some cases we can get refunds on airline and hotel reservations; in others, not.  Also, we have for the foreseeable future cancelled all field trips and sports competitions, impacting adversely our students’ extracurricular experiences. Even the Wednesday night staff soccer game on GWA’s mini-turf field that has taken place unfailingly for longer than we have been at GWA, and which we enjoy watching from our balcony, has taken a hiatus.  We do not like this new normal, but it is what it is.

Because Brian had planned to shop last Sunday when we instead worked all day on COVID-19 preparations, he headed to Carrefour on Tuesday afternoon to buy some supplies on which we were low.  Not the hoarding fiascos about which we read taking place in Costco stores in the U.S., but restocking our depleted water supply (our standard week’s worth) and toilet paper supply (two big packs – not atypical for us who prefer to buy in bulk) to be safe, along with some other staples we had run down before Winter Break.  While stopped to weigh some carrots, onions, and potatoes (here one must bag produce and have store staff weigh it and slap a sticker with the price onto the bag), a Moroccan man sized up Brian’s cart, smiled, and asked him knowingly, “Getting ready?” Brian smiled back and said, “Of course!” The man responded saying, “I’ve got a brother in Los Angeles.  He went shopping for toilet paper and water and couldn’t find any at any store.” It brought flashbacks of living in Louisiana with hurricane predictions and in Cleveland with blizzard predictions. Then he told Brian, “Give it a few days here and this place will be a total madhouse.” So far that is not the case. Time will tell.

So here we are in our new COVID-19 world.  A world in which the stock of our Education Technology, Information Technology, communication, and nursing staff soars.  A world in which the daily volatility of the stock market cannot match that of people trying to assess how to stay safe while going about life as they always have known it.  A world in which schools operating as if we have indeed entered the third decade of the 21st Century share contingency plans with peer institutions around the world to further best practices, and have a distinct advantage over schools still operating – at best – in a solid 20th Century context…and in which the latter face the potential of simply having to shut down because they have neither the infrastructure nor the know-how to operate amid the new normal this pandemic may present.

But also a world in which levity can still exist.  The photo with this post comes from inside GWA’s elevator, made by the Orona company (whose website advertises that one out of every 10 new elevators in Europe is an Orona).  Some witty soul “vandalized” it with humorous graffiti, taping a “C” in front of the company name on the control panel so that it reads “corona” for anyone slick enough to notice.  If we can’t laugh…

Finally:  WASH YOUR HANDS…WITH SOAP!!!  It remains the single best action you can take to avoid catching or spreading not only COVID-19 but any such disease.  Besides, not doing so is just yucky. Ewww.

On your mark, get set, here we go!