When Joan Crull of Hays first heard about the coronavirus in Wuhan, China, she immediately went online to find out how far Wuhan is from Qingdao, China. That’s the city where her son, Justin, and his wife and two children live.
Justin Crull teaches fourth grade at the International School of Qingdao. His wife, Enhui (pronounced Un-way), gave birth Jan. 13 to their second son, Noah. The young couple also has a 3-year-old son, Lewis.
Joan Crull learned that the city where Justin and his family live is about 685 miles by car from Wuhan. Qingdao, in Shandong Province, is a popular resort community on the east coast of China, about halfway between Bejing and Shanghai, Justin Crull said in an email interview. The metropolitan area of Qingdao has a population of 9 million.
Since the first news about the coronavirus in January, Joan Crull and her husband, Terry, have monitored the news closely to learn about the spread of the disease in China and elsewhere.
Joan Crull is a music teacher for USD 489. Terry Crull is the director of choirs at Fort Hays State University.
The youngest of their four children, Justin, was born in Iowa but grew up in South Dakota and Colorado. After graduating from Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Mich., with a degree in biology, he moved to China in 2010 to take a job teaching English there.
He met his wife a few months after his arrival, and the couple has been married for five years. Ever since the Chinese government established restrictions on its population in late January, the family has “been pretty isolated,” he said.
His mother-in-law, who came for the new baby’s birth, has not been able to go home. Initially, travel between cities was forbidden, he said. Slowly, that requirement is easing, but there is still a mandatory 14-day quarantine for those traveling outside their hometowns. That has been enough to keep his mother-in-law from traveling home, he said.
“She lives in a town just 2.5 hours away, but, at this point, it might as well be halfway around the world,” he said.
That means the three adults and two small children spend most of their days in a three-bedroom, 850-square-foot apartment, which is about the standard size of an apartment in China, he said.
As per government restrictions, each apartment complex has its own security guards who check people going in and out. “The biggest restriction has been the closure of apartment complexes to anyone who is not a resident there,” he said.
“For about three weeks you were required to register with your name, phone number, address, ID number and temperature — they’d take it for you right there with a thermal thermometer. In the recent weeks, it’s relaxed a bit, and they’re basically just checking your temperature.”
The requirement about wearing face masks in public has also been eased to some extent. However, he said, recently he was notified a package had been delivered to him, and he forgot his mask when he ran downstairs to the apartment complex gate to meet the deliveryman.
“The guards refused to let me set one foot outside the complex,” he said.
He said getting food and other necessities has not been a problem, as long as it’s done between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. Fortunately, his wife and new baby have not had any major medical issues.
“This is not a time you want to be in a hospital,” Justin said. “The small western-style hospital where we gave birth and go for the majority of our health needs has been pretty much closed except for basic services. Any complications or emergency issues would mean we’d need to visit a public hospital, which is a daunting and unpleasant experience in good times, let alone now.”
He said the biggest challenge for him has been his job. His work has gone from daily interaction in a classroom with his 16 fourth-graders to teaching his students online from home, something he and his fellow elementary school teachers had never before experienced.
The school is similar to an American one and uses a U.S. curriculum that is taught using only English. The school has a student body of about 350 students, most of them children of foreign business people who work for companies in Qingdao. About half of the students are Korean, he said. The remainder come from other Asian and western countries. None of his students is a native English speaker.
With the outbreak of the coronavirus, most foreign staff and the majority of his students’ families left China. He said China’s Education Bureau recently announced that no staff or students outside of China would be permitted to return until further notice.
He said that after the virus hit, he and his fellow teachers “had to scramble to figure out in just a few days how to deliver online learning to (meet) the diverse needs of our students ... Online learning is suitable for other age groups, but it’s difficult for fourth graders. I can’t offer them the hands-on activities that engage them deeply.
“I cannot teach as I normally would, with lots of group and partner activities. It’s also harder to introduce new concepts and materials, as I’m not there to directly help the kids when they get stuck.”
Justin added he also spends considerable time on technical issues — helping students and their families navigate new websites and apps and troubleshooting if the videos he has made won’t load. Plus, all of this communication must take place via messaging and email.
To complicate matters, many of his students do not currently live in places with reliable internet, or they have only a phone, or they must share one computer with other siblings, who also have several hours of online learning they have to do each day.
If there has been an upside to the changes in the young family’s lifestyle, it has been more time spent as a family, he said. Also, “in this time with a newborn, it’s been a blessing to be able to get a little more sleep than I would otherwise,” he said.
Justin Crull said there has been no word yet from the Chinese government on when things will get back to normal.
“I expect it will be mid-April at the earliest before we can resume normal school, especially when you consider that any staff and students returning to Qingdao will have to do the 14-day quarantine,” he said.
He is currently working on his master’s degree in education through an online program at Calvin University, which he expects to finish in 2021. At that point, he said, the family will decide whether to leave China or remain.
With everything that has happened, he said, he still enjoys the natural beauty and the culture of his adopted country.
“I like living in China because it’s a reminder that my lifestyle, my language, my culture — it’s not the only one out there, nor is it indisputably ‘the best kind’ out there,” he said. “Every day I learn, often in humbling fashion, that I ought not to think too highly of myself and that I should stop to consider the wisdom and grace that abounds in places unlike my home country and culture.”
The last time Terry and Joan Crull saw Justin, Enhui and Lewis was in July 2019 when the young family returned to the United States for the Crulls’ annual get-together with all their children and grandchildren.
Terry Crull said he has resigned himself to the fact that Justin and his family will likely not get to attend this year’s reunion. That means Terry Crull and his wife will not get to see their new grandson in person for at least another year.
Meanwhile, the Crulls in Hays communicate with their son’s family weekly through texts and videos. They try to have live video chats with them every couple of weeks. The 13-hour time difference makes that communication difficult, Joan Crull said.
“We just know they are in God’s hands,” she said. “We have that assurance as Christians.”