WHILE Victoria’s school teachers are grappling with the challenges of online learning this term, spare a thought for Wonthaggi’s Sarah Hanley, who’s teaching VCE drama students from a Sydney hotel room she hasn’t been allowed to leave for the past eight days.
Under government restrictions to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the former Wonthaggi Secondary College [WSC] teacher and amateur theatre star is halfway through a mandatory quarantine period, having recently returned from a trip to Cambodia, in south-east Asia, with her partner Ash.
It was only meant to be a week-long getaway, to use up some long service leave, but the journey home has already taken more than a month, due the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mass commercial flight cancellations, including their original March 21 return flight, left the couple assessing rapidly dwindling options after Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared, on March 18, that Australians abroad must return home as soon as possible.
Faced with exorbitant airfares (up to $30,000), two-week airport quarantines, or long stopovers in countries with high numbers of COVID-19 cases, Sarah and Ash and three fellow Aussies travelling with them decided the best thing to do was to bunker down where they were, and on April 7, signed a month-long lease on an Airbnb 15 minutes out of the small city of Siem Reap.
The next day, they got word that the Australian embassy had come to the rescue, organising a charter flight for Australian citizens, leaving from the capital, Phnom Penh, the following Monday, April 13.
Along with about 200 other Australians, Sarah and Ash and their friends took that flight, and landed at Sydney Airport, where they were taken through health screenings, before being bussed to various hotels across the city.
Military and police escorted the travellers to their hotel rooms, telling them not to come out, under any circumstances, for the next two weeks.
Sarah and Ash’s room has no balcony; they can’t even so much as open a window for fresh air.
Food is delivered to their door three times a day in a brown paper bag – what’s inside is always a surprise.
Term two for Victorian schools began on day two of their quarantine, Tuesday, April 14, and Sarah – who’s now based in Brunswick but grew up in Wonthaggi and taught at WSC until 2012 – has hit the ground running, interfacing online with her year 8, year 10 and VCE drama students at Coburg High School.
Teaching from quarantine hasn’t been too much of a stretch, Sarah says, even though it certainly wasn’t part of the plan – she always travels with her laptop, and her students are adapting well to completing their lessons using the ‘G Suite’ software.
When she’s not teaching, she’s practising her new hobby Tae Bo, running lengths of the hotel room, and looking out the window at sunsets and people passing by.
As coordinator of the school production of ‘Into the Woods,’ due to premiere in term three, she’s also been planning creative ways to push ahead with scheduled rehearsals. She’s grateful to be safe on home soil but says she was never afraid of being stuck in Cambodia – a country she’s visited many times.
“I think people back home were more scared for us because they don’t really know what it’s like over there.
“But the Khmer people are so kind and selfless and we made sure to respect them and keep our distance. We felt completely safe and comfortable the whole time.”
The hardest thing was keeping up with the rapidly evolving situation for travellers as the COVID-19 crisis developed.
“It was hard to understand what was going to happen because every 12 hours, the news changed,” Sarah said.
“Even when we heard there was going to be a chartered flight, we didn’t have confirmation of tickets, or when the flight would be leaving or what airline it would be or whether we should get on a bus to Phnom Penh straight away or stay put and wait for a phone call.
“Borders were closing, provinces within the country were closing, there was talk the Cambodian government was going bring in a state of emergency…
“But the [Australian] embassy worked really hard and did all they could with our best interests at heart. I think there were four staff organising things and they were working around the clock. So we’re really grateful for everything the government’s been doing.”
Sarah and Ash hope to be out of quarantine by next Monday, April 27, and back to Melbourne soon after. But they’ve prepared themselves for circumstances to change once again. “A lot can happen in a week. For now, we just have to do the right thing and stay in quarantine until it’s safe to come out; it’s just a waiting game.
“But it’s definitely been a long journey and we can’t wait to get back to Victoria and to our normal apartment. I’m looking forward to fresh air!”