I am a first-generation Hmong-American student. When I was 6-years-old, my family came to the United States as war refugees. In 1978, my parents came to this country with only their three children and the clothes on their back.

Photo courtesy of Kaying Xiong, Ed.D.

Kaying Xiong | Eau Claire, WI

They believed so strongly in allowing their young children to get an education that they risked their lives fleeing a war-torn country, leaving behind their relatives and their own parents. 

Education has always been an important part of our livesmy husband’s and mine. We believe strongly in the idea that education is the key to social justice and a life with more opportunities. I decided to work in education to have an impact in my community. I am a product of the Eau Claire Area School District and have been here for the last twenty-five years. I started teaching in Eau Claire as a first-grade teacher, then English as a Second Language for first through fifth graders. In 2001, I received the principalship position at Locust Lane Elementary School, and worked there for 15 years. Five years ago, I transitioned to my current position now, as the Director of Student Services and more recently as the Executive Director of Student Services. My role this year has proven to be different than other years, given the Covid-19 crisis.  

We have had to redesign education to meet the parameters that were given to us by the WI Department of Health Services. This included creating a variety of instructional models for a mix of in-person and online learning, and a 100% virtual learning option. In addition, within the classrooms, students had to remain six-feet apart with masks on at all times, except for when drinking and eating. These changes have been difficult, but children can also be very resilient.  We are taking the challenges one at a time, and we know we’ll get through this. We just have to make sure we do our best to keep everyone healthy, safe and working together. 

My colleagues and I like to say, ‘With every challenge, comes an opportunity.’ One of the things the pandemic has taught us is that we can learn, teach and grow differently from what we’ve known in the past. School systems are very slow to change, and I think this pandemic has really pushed us to jump in with both feet with many changes including the possibilities with technology.  

I think it’s also caused us to pay a lot more attention to the social, emotional and mental health of students and the adults around them. Unfortunately, the pandemic has exacerbated some of the systemic inequities that were put into place without understanding its impact on our students, staff, and families.  Through the lens of equity we considered plans for students who did not have the needed technology to learn at home, including computers and the wifi needed to make them usable.  It pushed the district to shore up on some of the inequitable practices that were in place.  

The pandemic has been very difficult for everybody working in the school system. Everything is more complicated, and we had to get creative. For example, how do we get school meals to the students that need it?  We provided, “Meals on Wheels,” and put school breakfast and lunches on a yellow school bus, and the school bus drove the route that it typically would drive. Instead of taking students to and from school, the bus dropped off the meals. I’m putting in 12 to 14 hours a day, at a minimum, mainly because there’s just so much going on. One of my primary responsibilities right now is to work with contact tracers in all the schools and inform them about the evolving guidelines and practices that come from the national level to the local levels. We’re not health professionalsthat’s not our worldand all of us have had to experience a huge learning curve in a short amount of time to make sure that we had good disease mitigation practices in place to avoid an outbreak in schools so we can keep schools open for in person learning.   

My daughter, Isabella, is also a student in the district and attends school 100% virtual. She’s a very social individual, and so, it’s been hard for her to be home every day and not be with her other family members and friends physically. My family knows of friends and relatives who have gotten sick because of Covid and have passed away from it. I have elderly parents, as well, and we’ve just been extra careful with seeing them on a limited basis and trying to keep our distance so that, just in case we’re asymptomatic and are carrying the virus around, we’re not infecting other people. Everyone has been impacted at some point personally.

I think the pandemic is like an earthquake, and the aftereffects will be like a tsunami. People will  have to be in good health physically and emotionally to deal with the aftermath of the tsunami so that we can pick up the pieces and move on. I believe in humanity, and I believe we’re going to get through this together, but it’s going to take everybody doing their part in participating and practicing all mitigating strategies that science has taught us to get us to the other side. 

Kaying’s story is part of Love Wisconsin’s Covid-19 series. Through this series we are featuring shorter stories to offer a  time capsule into life in Wisconsin during this extraordinary time. The story was produced by Jesse Yang.

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