When a third of Camilla Portela’s class caught COVID, she became their source of support

Deliveries of bread, milk and essentials were sent to those in locked down apartment blocks where parents couldn’t leave the house, while stationery and reading packs were delivered to the school’s refugee families.

Back in Fairfield, Ms Portela became the trusted person her students turned to when they struggled to comprehend what was going on around them. Her online classes quickly changed from English lessons to emergency information sessions, as rules and restrictions changed from week to week.

“We’re an English school; the language was around understanding the message from key people and how to access things online. What if someone calls you from NSW Health, and asks what’s your name? What’s an LGA? Where does it start, where does it stop, where can I go? It was long hours,” she said.

“It called for a different approach to teaching. I can have a lesson planned, but today this happened, so let’s work through this issue.”

She said her students were frightened and confused by what was happening, since many of them lived alone or did not have established social connections. “One of my student’s family was very sick, some of them were very sick. Students would call me from the ambulance or from hospital and say: ‘What’s going on teacher, why am I here?’,” she said.

“There was no time limit. I could get a message at 5 o’clock in the morning or late in the evening; it didn’t matter. We were just there to help them.”

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In time, her students became subject experts who could convey key messages to their families.“It was beautiful to see the youth step up and help people who were very frightened,” she said.

As the pandemic wore on, Ms Portela tried to get them to talk about their mental health and take care of themselves by going for daily walks. When she realised many of them didn’t have anyone in their area who they could walk with, she started a Zoom walking group each day at 5pm.

“I had people from Blacktown and Guildford, Villawood, we were all walking together. It was only half an hour but it brought us together, we started talking and showing things about our area,” she said.

“We have really dark days, but we also have really nice days. They know that I’m there for them, whether they are calling me from the ICU or I’m calling them to check they are staying home.”

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