Thursday 5 March 2020

The longest holiday: Parents coping with coronavirus school closures in east Asia

In a bid to stem spread of the virus, schools in Hong Kong, China and Japan have been shut for weeks

“It’s been a long holiday,” laughs Hong Kong insurance worker and mother, Sarah Wong.

Wong and her two daughters, Chloe and Greeta, are at a co-working space in Jordan, Kowloon. Chloe has set her desk up like home, with an iPad, her own lamp, and an aromatherapy diffuser. The girls, aged 12 and eight, are listening to online lessons from their school which has been closed because of the coronavirus.

Across the world, governments are ordering or contemplating school closures in a bid to slow the spread of the virus. French officials closed about 120 schools in areas that have reported the largest numbers of infections, its education minister said on Tuesday.
Most Hong Kong schoolchildren have not returned to school since the lunar new year holidays and the government has extended closures to 20 April. Photograph: Kin Cheung/AP

In some countries parents have already had their children at home for more than a month. Some have taken holidays or sent the kids overseas to relatives.

Most Hong Kong schoolchildren never returned to school following the lunar new year holidays after the government announced and then extended closures to 20 April.

“In the first few weeks it was a little bit troublesome, it messed up all our schedules – not only the kids but all of our daily routine and work schedules,” Wong says.

But the start of online classes brought back routine and relieved the girls’ boredom, Wong says, and she’s lucky to have an employer who lets her work flexibly. Friends aren’t so fortunate and she says they are “panicked”.

When the weather is nice, Wong takes the girls to the playground or the beach, but amid calls for people to practise social distancing, they’re missing their friends.

On Hong Kong Island the age gap between Eiffel Chau’s children – kindergarten, grade one, and grade five – has made it difficult to manage all three.

“The youngest one in kindergarten doesn’t have any online class,” Chau says.

“I just need to keep her busy so she won’t disturb the other two kids. She has company, but she sees the parents at home so she expects the parents to do something with her.”

Chau says he’s lucky that he’s permitted to work from home, as his wife is a teacher and is busy running online classes for her students.

His advice to other parents facing the same situation is to take advantage of it. Hong Kong’s schooling is notoriously demanding, but Chau is using the extra time to teach his kids more responsibility for their home and chores, and to do more exercise.

“At the same time it’s also a good opportunity for us to catch up with family relations,” he says. “We have nowhere to go, even on the weekend. We do board games, and card games, that’s something we can take this chance to do.”

In China, millions of students have been home from school since mid-February. Schools have been ordered to provide online lessons, and primary classes are reportedly broadcast on public television.

Officials have advised, and in some cases ordered, families to stay inside, making the absence of school even harder for restless children stuck at home. Online videos show families playing elaborate games.

A flood of advice online ranges from creating strict daily schedules to follow, to videos with home science experiments and tips for activities. A notice in February from the Gulou district in Beijing advised parents to cherish the time: “The parent is the most important teacher in every child’s life,” it said.

But discussion topics such as “what kind of life have parents been pressured into” and “school start date is postponed” have more than 400m views and thousands of comments.

“ I just want to know when kindergarten starts,” one wrote.

“The kids are so destructive and parents are going crazy. I hope the epidemic passes as soon as possible, so that these destructive little beasts can study.”

Others complained about the difficulty of supervising their kids’ online classes and heavy workload. One said: “I am being tortured to death by these online classes. When will this end?”

In Japan many working parents were horrified by the government’s weekend announcement requesting every primary, middle and high school in the country to close until the start of the new academic year in mid-April.

The unprecedented shutdown, affecting almost 13 million pupils, has forced companies to rethink their rigid work practices, to allow working from home or shortening business hours.

Working mothers complained that the shutdown would force them to take time off, given the shortage of daycare facilities and the scarcity of nannies and babysitters.
A family in Hong Kong play board games amid the coronavirus outbreak. Photograph: Aleksander Solum/Reuters

An online poll by Yahoo Japan found 49% of parents said they would leave their children home alone, 20% would take time off work and 14% would enlist the help of grandparents.

In a few cases, parents have had no choice but to take their children to work. They include Keiko Kobayashi, a senior manager at a multinational staffing service in Tokyo.

“I was shocked by the news of the school closures, and thought, what should I do?” Kobayashi told Associated Press. “There was no explanation of how this is going to work.”

Back in Kowloon, Wong looks at her girls studying at the table and smiles. “I really hope they can go back to school soon,” she says. “They keep saying ‘I want to go to school’, which is good because before they didn’t want to go.”

(Source: The Guardian)

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