Life in Guatemala Volume 12: In Which a Foreigner Tries to Explain Guatemalan Covid Protocols with a Minimal Amount of Knowledge

Okay, look. One of the purposes of my blog is to give you a sense of what my daily life is like here. I think that – especially given the current global situation (you know… the pandemic) and even more specifically the current situation for a big portion of my readership (friends and families in Ontario… in yet another lockdown), I think this topic is very timely and will be very interesting. 

But I am not an expert. I’m just a foreigner, a white person who doesn’t speak Spanish all that well, and who doesn’t know all the ins and outs of Covid protocols in this country I currently call home. I’m just writing about my own experiences, and all of this is anecdotal. This is not an official reporting.

Okay, let’s get on with it. 

Guatemala had very strict lockdown measures for quite a long period of time in 2020. For quite obvious reasons, these were challenging for many Guatemalans, especially those who count on the day’s work to provide the day’s food. Many Guatemalans do not have work that can be done from home. 

As lockdown measures lifted last fall, cases stayed more or less steady at around 400 or 500 cases a day (in a country of some 16.6 million people). Daily case counts rose a bit shortly after Christmas to 800 a day, but they dropped back down again to around 500. That number slowly crept up over the next few months, though, and it saw a drastic rise in April. I have a suspicion that the timing – and cultural and religious importance – of Easter has a lot to do with that (even with no Holy Week celebrations here in a city that has the biggest Holy Week celebrations in the world outside of the Vatican – that’s a major indication of the government’s attempt to prevent Covid spread!). Daily case counts peaked around 1350, and they’re slowly dropping again – but still at around 1100 a day, quite far above the earlier 400 or 500 a day. 

Thank you, worldometers.info for these graphs!

So what is actually happening to prevent the spread of Covid? Here are a couple of the factors that most heavily affect my life. 

Mask wearing is mandated in any public space. That means that if you’re not inside your house (or I guess some other private space – although it really matters what that is), then you’re wearing a mask. Yes, that can be hot. You just have to suck it up. Yes, most of the photos that I have of me out and about are me in a mask. It’s okay – really just part of Covid life, right? I will immediately know when those photos were taken when I look back at them in the future. 

Basically every picture of me outside of the school compound where I live – always wearing a mask.

Capacity is reduced for anything where capacity can be restricted. Church is currently meeting at reduced capacity, with all of the chairs spread out across the floor, two metres apart from the nearest neighbour. Doesn’t matter if you’ve come with your spouse or roommates – you’re going to sit two metres apart! Restaurants, buses, stores, basically anything with an indoor space has a reduced capacity. I can’t think of the last time that I entered a place that didn’t have a temperature check (either machine or person) at the entrance along with hand sanitizer.  Buses have signs (or sometimes paint) on the seat indicating where you’re allowed to have two people in a seat and where you’re not – spacing across the aisle. 

Now, do all of these protocols get followed strictly? In some places, absolutely. The church is very strict about protocols, including ensuring we stay distanced as we exit – and we are already dismissed by row to avoid a big crowd as we head to the door. And of course a major benefit is that so much of life happens outside. It’s almost impossible to find a restaurant in Antigua that doesn’t have a courtyard or some kind of outdoor seating. In other situations… I’m skeptical. My roommates and I have joked that often the guy taking temperatures as you get on the bus doesn’t even seem to be looking at the thermometer. I’ve never seen anyone turned away, and not everyone actually pays attention to the signs on the bus seats. And while the bus hypothetically has a capacity limit, I have a feeling that the opportunity to make the bus fare money would win over telling someone the bus is full. 

The bus and the market are definitely the two most dangerous things I do on a weekly basis. There is no social distancing in either space, so I just ensure my mask is in place and remind myself that open windows and open air ventilation (for the market) are helpful, and anything else is beyond my control. 

Of course, students aren’t at school. Parents come every Friday to drop off work from the week and pick up the next week’s work. Every once in a while we’ll get a text from the principal telling us that such and such a student or family has been diagnosed with Covid, so they won’t be coming to school to turn in work for the next two weeks. For Guatemalans, a test is free if they have symptoms. And of course, as with most countries, Covid tests aren’t easy or practical to get for all citizens, so the actual Covid case is certainly higher than the official reported data. If being diagnosed with Covid means having to take time off work and lose income and maybe not be able to buy food for your family, you’re definitely going to pretend you’re feeling fine if you can. 

I read on Reuters that approximately 168,000 doses of Covid vaccines have been given out here. That’s 0.5% of the population. It’ll take a while to get enough vaccines and get enough Guatemalans vaccinated. I will also not be vaccinated myself until I return to Canada in early November. (I need to leave the country for 72 hours  in June for visa purposes, but it looks like I won’t be going to Canada given the current hotel quarantine which is totally out of my budget.) In the meantime, we continue to wait, put our hope in the Lord, and act wisely and with common sense in following Covid protocols and reducing our risk factors. 

Bethany’s Life in Guatemala, Volume 3: School Has Started!

I know. Last week was already about school. But I’m a teacher, so you should fully expect to read more about school over my year here, teaching in Guatemala!

I need to write about school this week. Because it was A WEEK. An incredible week. A good week. A hard week. So pretty much your typical week when it comes to school. 

On Monday, parents came to pick up packets of work for their children. One thing that is very different from Canada is that students need to pay for their photocopies here. That has been quite a different idea for me to wrap my head around. I’ve had several conversations with Beth, our TEFL director about it. Because my first instinct is to make sure I give the fewest number of pages possible, but giving nothing isn’t an option right now and besides needing students to do work that they then turn in to be marked so that I have grades, students also need to do work to learn. So I will balance thorough, thoughtful sheets with saving space. Beth also reminded me that students expect that cost. At many private schools in Guatemala, students are required to buy books and then don’t really use them, so this is also a way to ensure that students only pay for what they actually need. 

On Tuesday, the halls rang out with the joyful sound of children. Such few children, but what a joy to have children at school! The children of teachers and staff are at the school. Having them doesn’t violate municipal regulations for Covid, it means students can actually be at school, and it means students aren’t at home alone or requiring child care while parents work. 

We started Tuesday the way we always do – with a devotions time full of listening to God, worship, and prayer. I spent a lot of that time crying. I can’t believe how good it was to listen to children sing with gusto. I haven’t been in a space like that since February 2020. It was so good. 

On Tuesday, I also posted my first video in a Facebook group. Still kind of crazy to me that I am teaching and purposely using Facebook. I also received some very cute texts through WhatsApp from students asking questions about their work. 

I don’t have any pictures of students or school, so please enjoy this very cute text from a student! 💕

Tuesday through Thursday, I uploaded teaching videos to Facebook, answered questions through WhatsApp, and TAUGHT REAL STUDENTS IN PERSON!!! I have one student in person in my segundo básico class (grade 8), and two students in person in my tercero básico class (grade 9). It’s so helpful to have in-person students and get to have real interactions instead of just online, and it’s also really helpful to get one data point of information for where my students might be in their English level. 

In typical roller-coaster teaching fashion, classes went really well and really badly. When I finished my last class on Thursday, I came back to the staff room and told my TEFL colleagues, “I’m really worried about my online kids. When you can spend 3x longer explaining the concept in person and they’re still struggling with it… how are the online kids doing when they just have 5 minutes of explanation?” Sure enough, that has certainly been the class and activity that I’ve had the most texts about. When parents come next week Monday and hand in this past week’s work and pick up the next packet, it’ll be very interesting to see how students did. 

In addition to teaching, editing and posting videos, and answering questions, this week we also needed to plan our next two weeks of class. We need to turn in our lesson plans for the coming week by Thursday afternoon before we leave school. To give some context, remember that Guatemala is a country with a chronically underfunded education system. In November, the Congress literally voted to make cuts to education and the health care system in order to increase their stipends for meals. So when teachers aren’t paid a living wage, when no one checks in on their work, when they sometimes live long distances from school… why bother showing up on time? Why bother having lessons planned for the day? Global Shore is consciously different. Teachers must arrive on time for the day or they aren’t paid for that day of school. Their lesson plans must be turned in to be looked over. And those handouts… remember the handouts that get photocopied? You also have to give those to the secretary to make copies for everyone. 

This past week and next week, parents will come on Monday, and classes happen from Tuesday to Friday. But the plan is to change the turn-around day to Friday, so that classes will happen from Monday to Thursday, and on Friday parents will come and switch out materials. That means we actually need to have our lesson plans turned in by Wednesdays and get the copies done. In order to make that turn-around happen, this week we handed in lesson plans and handouts for two weeks. So yes, in our first week of school we had to write lesson plans and handouts for the next two weeks. Another crazy and fun factor is that we need to have 3 “midterms” throughout each quarter, each approximately 3 weeks apart. So I have already planned and made photocopies for a test for the end of week 3 and I haven’t even gotten any student work back yet. Literally who knows if students will pass or fail, if it’s incredibly easy work or incredibly hard work for them?! Not me!

I don’t tell you these differences to critique the educations system in general or the work that Global Shore is doing here. If you understand the cultural differences, many of the differences in how schools run make sense. But I hope that the stories give a little insight into my life in this past week and in the kind of work that I’m doing!