By Bridget Kennelly
Bridget Kennelly began her mentoring role at Immaculate Heart College, Taborio, Kiribati in January 2019. Bridget works closely with local teachers to provide professional development workshops to assist English curriculum development, lesson preparation and classroom teaching.
When asked to be Acting Principal of a school of over 400 secondary boarders for a ‘short time’ while the current Principal attended the Chapter for the OLSH Sisters, I firstly thought it would be a great experience to grow and learn, help to make a positive difference in the school and plus, I had a year of being Deputy under my belt…
How much more it has been…
The Principal, Sr Maata, left IHC at the end of the second week of the school year. She never made it to Rome to attend the Chapter in March, as it was cancelled due to the Covid-19 virus taking hold in Rome. Traveling with 2 other iKiribati Sisters, they tried to make it back to Kiribati before the Kiribati borders closed. However they were finally stuck to quarantine in Fiji; the borders closed the day before their quarantine period had finished, stranded there indefinitely.
Isolation of Kiribati
Here we are, on a series of tiny atolls in the Pacific, totally isolated not only geographically, but in many respects with communication also. News is transferred through announcements on the radio; there is no television or newspapers. Not everyone has access to Internet, and language barriers make it difficult for them to be informed well with printed media. So as you can imagine the iKiribati people tend not to have a global mindset.
If Covid-19 was to reach these shores, it would have a devastating effect due to overcrowding, poor hygiene and very limited healthcare. It is not even possible to test for the virus here; samples must be sent away for testing. Therefore, the government made a decision very early to declare a State of Emergency as a proactive preventative measure, and time will tell, but this extreme measure could well have saved many lives. Flights in and out were cancelled, and the Port was heavily monitored. To date, we remain one of the few countries in the world untouched by the Covid-19 virus.
Giving early information to the school community without causing panic, yet being honest and realistic, was challenging. I firstly started with explaining at school assembly that there was a sickness that was very bad in some countries, and that we were expecting our other Palms Volunteer, Philip, to return home to his family because of this virus. Philip went to South Tarawa to the airport in the hope of catching a flight, only to find flights had been cancelled and he returned to Taborio after several days. I then had to explain to the students why he couldn’t return to Australia as there were no planes allowed in or out. The students began to realise the gravity of the situation. This was an emotional time for Philip also, with the hope of returning changing to disappointment every time a possible flight was announced.
Giving the facts amid misinformation
We first went through an ‘awareness’ phase; I explained to the students what the virus symptoms were, making sure they knew if they felt sick, it was probably ‘normal sick’ rather than coronavirus, as it hadn’t reached our shores. One of the worst things was the worry caused from misinformation. One staff member couldn’t attend class one day as she had a headache from worrying about the coronavirus. Another staff member received false information and told the students the virus actually was on South Tarawa (the mainland), which sent many students into a panic, and I had to reassure the students that Kiribati remained Covid-19 free, and they must make sure they have the right information before they became too concerned. The students know that I am a trusted person, and as such it is very important that I am honest with them. I generally have access to Internet so often students would arrive at my office asking me to ‘check’ if the virus was here.
The Ministry of Education held a meeting for Principals, to discuss how school would be delivered if the virus came to the island. Home-Based Learning was the idea put forward. IHC teachers prepared lessons for 2 weeks, and these were sent to the Ministry ready to be uploaded if this method was to be used.
The Ministry of Education closed schools very suddenly, as the President declared a lockdown over the radio. I spoke to the students at dinnertime on the Friday explaining what was happening and we sent the students home the next morning. The plan was to have a 3 week holiday break, then if necessary, Home-Based Learning was ready to go. Fortunately we haven’t needed this, (students returned last Sunday and classes resumed on Monday), as the effectiveness was very doubtful due to the need for Internet access, which most students do not readily have in their homes.
If Kiribati is considered isolated, we are more isolated at Taborio, as it is not on the mainland of South Tarawa. In the holiday break, Philip and I had to go to South Tarawa to open a bank account. We waited for nearly 4 hours in a queue at the bank, amongst signs that said ‘Social Distancing in Progress – keep 1.5 metres away’. I’m not sure if this was lost in translation, however it wasn’t being adhered to in the slightest! On the other extreme, some people were wearing face masks, and children under 18 had been asked to stay at home.
Struggle to remain or return – Being asked to make a decision amid no chance of leaving
Personally, it has been a very confronting time. Each time there is hope for a repatriation flight, I struggle with the decision to stay or go. Being told if I stay and the virus comes, I may use up a local’s need for the medical treatment leaves me with a huge sense of guilt for still being here. Knowing there is not adequate healthcare here if the virus was to come and staying anyway. It has been difficult being given advice to leave, and feeling judged for my decision to remain, by people who are not living in or understanding my situation. The want to be with my family, as my parents are more vulnerable due to their age. Having struggled with the decision several times now and then learning there has never been a chance to leave, has been a very mixed time of emotions.
Supplies are generally very limited on this side of the island, yet on the mainland we noticed the lack of ships allowed into port are resulting in less supplies available. Most items here are imported so there may be a big effect on many industries. It is ironic hearing people complain about the lack of supplies in Australia, yet they still have access to more produce than locals have here all the time!
The strongest feelings behind my decision to stay are ones of solidarity, a sense of responsibility for my role as Principal and the awareness that if I stay and the virus comes, I will be able to support the students and staff with a calm, rational, realistic and global mindset. In answer to the question; “What is it like living in a country free from Covid-19?”, the answer is “There is much uncertainty, guilt and concern.” It is not like we are lying back without a care in the world. Despite not having it here, therefore not affected physically, we are still dramatically affected in many other ways. We do not know what is around the corner in terms of Covid-19 in Kiribati. We remain vigilant, honest and realistic. We will deal with whatever comes our way.
You can support the staff and students at Immaculate Heart College by making a regular or one-off donation to their project. This project provides professional development for the local teachers of the college.