One step ahead

Teaching internationally during the Covid era.

There have been many stories about teachers trapped by quarantine, closed borders and cancelled flights in 2020. This is what happened to PE teacher, Roz O’Shea and her family.

On the move

For the past 9 months we have been on the move, seemingly one step ahead of Border closings in three countries during the Covid era.

We had been teaching overseas since 2018, when my husband and I with our two children left our home in New Zealand of 15 years, for teaching posts in Shanghai. In early 2020 whilst holidaying in the Philippines during Chinese New Year, the Covid situation reached crisis level in China so we could not return. Within 24 hours we booked flights back to New Zealand to be reunited with old friends and colleagues in their extended summer.

Home and away

It was on our special beach where we had been married 13 years previously, that we learned of the job offers for our dream job in Penang, Malaysia in September. We were ecstatic. Kuala Lumpur had been my first posting 21 years ago and following a family trip there in 2017, our family were determined to make Malaysia our home.

Back to Shanghai

First we had to complete our contract in China. With the situation improving in Shanghai we managed to secure one of the final flights out of New Zealand 2 hours before their borders closed on 25 March. We had no idea what we were heading in to, but judging by the full polythene outfits with full face visors we saw on arrival, it was going to be different.

Science fiction

All of a sudden it was like being thrust into a movie set from a science fiction movie, surrounded by people in full hazmat suits without an inch of skin being revealed. We were escorted off the plane one family at a time, through various stations of temperature and paperwork checks before being led to a bus. Within an hour we were in a sterile and eerie building with echoing rooms and a chill that went through our veins. We were led to another desk and without explanation; a large cotton bud was rammed up our daughter’s nostril without warning. She screamed and yelped, begging for them to stop. We managed to persuade them to throat swab both children, but they reduced me to tears as they did this 4 times. I will never forget this traumatic experience.

Green stickers and online teaching

We had escaped quarantine due to being given some of the last ‘green stickers’ on entry into Shanghai. Later that day, the government enforced all entries into China with compulsory hotel quarantine at the traveller’s expense and soon after, full border closure. We had made it back, just in the nick of time. Then a period of close to 4 weeks of online learning interspersed with gathering friends at our compound together for daily workouts, filled our days and helped us settle back into this new norm.

School reopens

School had to complete very stringent measures in order to re-open and by 27 April, Year 11 and 13 were the first year groups to be staggered back in. This process continued over the coming weeks with the secondary students, and the Primary School getting their turn from 18 May. Those of us that had successfully made it back before border closure, then covered the classes for close to 27 colleagues who hadn’t returned in time. Intricate plans of running 3 different timetables concurrently to stand in for staff overseas, students overseas and present students at school added to the foray.

Very strict regulations meant form tutors had to supervise their classes for 2 hours of the day as well as log their temperatures into the system twice a day. In PE, great measures were taken to sterilize every piece of equipment used before and after lessons. Students and staff had to sit in silence in the lunch hall, with a barrier between themselves and the person next to them.


As our time at BISS came to a close, our eagerness to send our shipment and book our flights to Malaysia followed months of further setbacks. Extended border closure in Malaysia, entry applications being disapproved unexpectantly with the likelihood of no approval until at least January, called for a plan B. With our new school’s blessing, finding ourselves living out of suitcases in a hotel in Shanghai, an opportunity arose to assist a school in Guangzhou that was very understaffed. Within a week of complete relocation and learning the ropes, the approval had been granted into Malaysia and we were urged to act swiftly before the government changed the rules again.

Quarantine in KL

5 October we arrived in Kuala Lumpur. This was followed by two weeks of compulsory quarantine which was comfortable enough but equally very challenging with four people who crave fresh air. We followed a schedule of work, exercise, and entertainment to keep us distracted from the world outside. The kindness shown so far and the use of English, has added to the joy of being back. Despite the frustration and inconvenience, it feels wonderful to return to a place we all so dearly love.

Green light?

Spirits were running high as we reached the end of the second week, Our Covid Tests had come back negative, and we were cleared to drive on to Penang. Then came the devastating news that someone on the bus transferring us to our quarantine hotel had tested positive and our ‘pink tickets’ may have to  be revoked. On no! Long faces all round – we have never wanted to get somewhere so badly! More tests.

We prepared for the worst, but thankfully our test proved to be negative and we were on our way to the next part of our international teaching adventure.



Roz O’Shea has just started teaching PE again at the Prince of Wales Island International School in Penang. Her love affair with international education began in 1999 when she arrived in Kuala Lumpur to teach at the Alice Smith School.





Feature Image: by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Photographs kindly provided by Roz