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Former Alliance school teacher living under lockdown in Colombia

Former Alliance school teacher living under lockdown in Colombia

When Alan Van Tilburg left Alliance to be the academic director at a Christian Academy in Bogata, Colombia, he didn’t expect the city to virtually shut down.

That’s exactly what has happened as the city of 12 million went on lockdown Friday due to concerns over the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Van Tilburg said he can typically look out his apartment window and see a bustling street with people heading to a major shopping center nearby, but the lockdown has left it eerily empty, save for a few people walking to the corner store, wearing masks and pushing a shopping cart. Residents are allowed to go outside for groceries or medicine, one person per household. Supplies are not an issue, just access to them.

“It sounds like we’re a lot better off than in the states,” Van Tilburg said. “I mean, we’ve got toilet paper. I still don’t understand what the deal is with that. There are days when I’ve walked into the store and couldn’t find milk, but so far we haven’t had any real issues, which is a blessing.”

While emphasizing that officials have to err on the side of caution, Van Tilburg said he wonders how many people may have had undiagnosed cases of COVID-19 without even knowing it. He said he traveled to Alliance and Colorado to see family around Christmas, and came down with what he thought was a cold, but looking back included the same dry cough and other symptoms typically associated with the virus. He said he returned to Bogata and many of his co-workers came down with the same symptoms, but all recovered.

“I just think that it affects everybody differently, so probably a lot more people may have already had it than we know,” Van Tilburg said.

The Colegio El Camino Academy where Van Tilburg works teaching students and training teachers has been shut down, so the instructors are working on virtual learning and podcasts while conducting administrative meetings online to try to stay ahead in the learning process for the students. While the limited work activities are a marginal break in the day, Van Tilburg said being stuck at home tends to drag.

“There are times when it’s just not that entertaining,” he said. “If (the NCAA basketball tournament’s) March Madness was on, that would be a little better, but that got nixed, too.”

Van Tilburg said the academy regularly takes two days off per year to do their part in reducing traffic and pollution, so they’re a little ahead of the game in understanding how to work from home.

“I’ve been in contact with some of my colleagues from Alliance about what they can do,” Van Tilburg said. “Really, it’s a lot of trial and error and seeing how the kids respond.”

Colegio El Camino Academy started off as a missionary school and still has a lot of students who are children of ministers. Van Tilburg said 98% of the students are Colombian, but the courses are taught in English, including his eighth-grade United States history class. He said making U.S. history interesting for 22 Colombian kids is a challenge, but he tries to compare and contrast U.S. and Colombian history to teach the similarities.

In spite of his current situation, Van Tilburg said he thinks everyone should live abroad at some point. Columbia, he said, has received a bad rap (“deservedly so”) because of the history of drug cartels. However, he said things have changed.

“This place today is far safer than anybody in the States could imagine,” he said, pointing out that he often exercises outside. “I’ve been here for two years and have never had any problems with anybody. ... There are areas where you want to be careful, but that’s anywhere. It really all boils down to how you treat people.”

Van Tilburg said he has done a lot of praying and fasting while on lockdown, but he said Colombians are dealing with the same things as other South American countries and the United States.

“We’re all just sitting here looking out the windows at each other and passing the time,” he said.

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Mark McCarthy is a reporter with the Star-Herald and oversees the Gering Courier as editor. He can be reached at 308-632-9049 or via email at

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