School Update

The week before our vacation, we suddenly heard about the potential for students to return to school. Our students have not been present in school in person since March of 2020. That’s 2020, y’all, not this most recent March. They have now spent 16 months out of school, mostly learning through videos at home. I haven’t even met the vast majority of my students. (I have met two students at church. Two. And I’m pretty sure that one of my students sat across the aisle from me in the bus one time when I was going into town to buy groceries because I got stared at more than the usual level of “You’re a white person in Guatemala, what are you doing on the bus?” It seems strange to me that students may feel like they know me since they see me in videos every week, but I literally don’t know what they look like.) So it was with great excitement that we learned that the government was maybe, possibly going to allow students to return to school. There were just a whole bunch of hoops we had to jump through. 

The first thing was a questionnaire sent home to parents so that they could indicate whether they would want their children to attend in person or whether they would want to continue their learning at home. Parents needed to send that questionnaire back the first week after vacation. (Parents come and pick up/drop off a packet of homework weekly, so that was to be included in the packet that week.)

Parents were pretty divided on the issue, with some parents wanting kids to be back in school but others wanting them to be in the safety of their homes. However, the point has become moot with recent Covid 19 case counts rising rapidly in the country. Our department (region) is very solidly in the red, and restrictions have increased again. Rumours of full hospitals abound, and we will not likely be seeing students in person any time soon. 

While this is a wise safety measure in a country with a struggling health system at the best of times, it’s also frustrating and devastating to not have had students in school for the last sixteen months. Many of you, my dear readers, are parents or teachers. You have seen the effects of at-home learning in your own lives. Many of you have felt the effects of working from home. I’m sure that you can imagine the devastation of those effects compounded over such a long time. 

Those effects are even more devastating with even more compounding factors – students living in homes where parents are dealing with unemployment or underemployment and a very minimal social safety net, parents struggling with alcoholism, parents who both have to go to work meaning older siblings are responsible for younger siblings while trying to make sure everyone gets their school work done, too. 

It’s frustrating to be able to see from the outside how broken the system is and yet to feel so powerless to do anything to change the system.

We do have some students in person – 23, to be exact. The children of staff members come with their parents to school on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. They have in-person classes, and in between teaching those students, we complete all our other duties – filming videos, editing videos, grading papers that came in on the latest Friday, and preparing lessons and homework packets for the upcoming week. 

I love, love, love having students in person. I teach a total of three students in person (bringing the total number of students I actually know to five!), and it brings me a lot of joy to actually build relationships with them, to see them growing in their English skills, to get to know them in a way I just cannot get to know students who are learning from Facebook videos. But what I love most is the way I see the blessing they receive from being here at school, the impact that being in person has on them. I see the impact of them being in class, being able to ask questions and participate, being able to get to know their teachers. More importantly, I see the impact of them being in devotions together at the start of every school day, spending time in worship and prayer, being ministered to and prayed for by staff members. And yet, seeing them impacted in this way, my heart breaks for all of the students who CANNOT be with us, who are missing out on these experiences. 

But every time that I am tempted to despair, God reminds me that God is not limited by students’ presence (or absence). God can work in students’ and families’ lives in the interactions that we do have with students, in whatever medium that happens. 

If you’re not following Global Shore on social media, you should be! But if you aren’t, then you missed a story that reminded me of exactly this fact (posted on July 26 if you’d like to find it to read for yourself). Let me paraphrase for you here. Leo, the school librarian and substitute teacher, told about a new student who was having a hard time. The student wasn’t a Christian and didn’t want to be in a Christian school. But his parents insisted on him attending. As he heard teachers begin class with prayer and explain Bible passages, his heart began to change. When he was invited to attend the every-other-week pre-teen services, he accepted the invitation. His parents are seeing a change in his attitude and life just from these experiences.

This story was a reminder to me that we often don’t know how God is moving, but we can trust that God is. We will move forward in faith and in faithfulness, doing what God is calling us to do in this season. And if you’d like, you can join me in praying for students’ hearts to be receptive to what God is doing, and pray for students to be able to return to school in person. 

Why Going to the Mall Makes for an Incredibly Exciting Weekend

I used to live in a pretty big city. If I needed to run an errand on the way home from work, I might occasionally complain about the traffic, but I could pick up or do what I needed to. I had a lot of independence, being able to drive where I needed to, and a lot of access to stores and all that they held. Stuff was close by, and there was a lot of stuff to be had. 

To a large extent, that changed with the onset of the Covid pandemic. I didn’t mind the lack of a commute, especially because for the first time EVER in my teaching career, I legitimately put my work away at the end of the school day and didn’t work on it until the next day. Literally – I had a school computer that I turned off at 4 o’clock each afternoon, and I after powering it down, I didn’t think any more about school work. It was great. I wasn’t running errands, but I also had all that I needed. I enjoyed the additional time to get outside and go for a run (especially as my health improved post-surgery), and I also read a LOT of the books that had been sitting unread on my bookshelves for so long. 

Here in Guatemala, I live at the top of a giant hill outside of a tiny village. It’s at least a 10 minute walk plus 20 minute bus ride into Antigua. We don’t go out at night for our safety – if we’re going anywhere in the dark, it’s to church and it’s with someone in a car. One time a week, my roommates and I go into town for groceries. The actual day might vary – if we go with Fred (who has a car, and therefore can make it a significantly shorter trip), it’s worth going on a weekday afternoon. We can leave shortly after school and easily make it back before dark and before supper. If we go on our own, we need to manage our time quite carefully, and we usually take an Uber back because #1) who wants to hike up a giant hill with a week’s worth of groceries in one’s arms and #2) it does get one back home faster than the bus and #3) it’s $7. $7 CAD with a healthy tip. I don’t know how Uber drivers can possibly make a living here. 

So. We go out for groceries, and we leave the compound for church. Otherwise, the only time I’m outside of the school compound (which is also, of course, where I live) is if I walk down the hill in the afternoon just to turn around and walk back up (“It’s such great exercise!” I sometimes have to tell myself when I’m asking myself why I do that willingly and “for fun” and not when I’m going somewhere) or when Tegan and I go for a longer run on Saturday morning (and then our reward for finishing a 5k run on a hilly course through the mountains is having to hike back up the giant hill to get home. It’s great. I love it every time. 😐😐)

And that, my friends, is why driving to a mall on a Sunday afternoon that’s all the way across Guatemala City is the best excitement one could have all month. It’s an outdoor mall, so it felt very Covid safe, with lots of social distancing and everyone required to wear masks even outside. It is easily the most beautiful place I’ve been to here so far. I am sure some of my friends are thinking to themselves, “But Bethany hates malls.” I do. And I hate long drives. But it was worth it because we went somewhere and did something. That’s really saying something! 😆😇

This week, Fred is talking about going to a different grocery store and offered to take us along. That’s literally our most exciting thing for this week – a different grocery store. Yep, I am living large here, up on a hilltop in rural Guatemala in the middle of a pandemic. 😂🤣

It really is an incredibly beautiful mall though! Apparently its architecture is styled after Spain?
It has this statue which, besides the oddly provocative pose, is very beautiful
This double decker bus is a restaurant – they make the food in the downstairs part and you can eat upstairs or outside

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.