‘When Can We Go to School?’: More Than Classes Are Missed for Coronavirus


HONG KONG — The daily rhythms of her family’s life were upended when the Hong Kong government, confronted by the fast-spreading coronavirus, decided to suspend schools in January.

Gao Mengxian, a security guard, stopped working to watch her daughters and started scrimping on household expenses. Masks in particular are pricey, so she ventures outside just once a week. She spends most of her time helping her daughters, 10 and 8, with their online classes, fumbling through technology that leaves her confused and her daughters frustrated.

“They’re always saying, ‘When can we go out to play? When can we go to school?’” said Ms. Gao, 48.

Similar dislocations and disruptions have taken hold worldwide as the coronavirus has forcedat least 10 countries, as well as countless provinces, cities and towns, to close schools in an effort to contain the outbreak’s spread. Hundreds of millions of students around the globe are now out of school in China, South Korea, Iran, Italy, Japan, France, Pakistan and elsewhere.

It is a grand social experiment with little parallel in the modern era of education. Schools and the school day help provide the structure and support for families, communities and entire economies. And the effect of closing them for weeks and sometimes months en masse could have untold repercussions for children and society at large, transcending geographies and class.

Older students have missed crucial study sessions for college admissions exams, while younger ones have risked falling behind on core subjects like reading and math. Parents have scrambled to find child care or to work from home. Families have moved children to new schools in areas unaffected by the coronavirus, and lost milestones like graduation ceremonies or last days of school.

All of this is compounded for families who do not have the financial means or professional flexibility, forcing parents such as Ms. Gao to take unpaid leave, or leaving students indefinitely without an educational backstop.

Governments are trying to help. Japan is offering subsidies to companies to help offset the cost of parents taking time off work. France has promised 14 days of paid sick leave to parents of children who must self-isolate, if they have no choice but to watch their children themselves.

But the burdens are widespread, touching corners of society seemingly unconnected to education. In Japan, schools have canceled bulk food delivery orders for lunches they will no longer serve, affecting farmers and suppliers. In Hong Kong, an army of domestic helpers have been left unemployed after wealthy families enrolled their children in schools overseas.

Julia Bossard, a 39-year-old mother of two in France, said she had been forced to rethink her entire routine since her older son’s school was closed for two weeks for disinfection. Her days now consist of helping her children with homework and scouring supermarkets for fast-disappearing pasta, rice and canned food. “We had to reorganize ourselves,” she said.

Online and Alone

School and government officials are doing their best to keep children learning — and occupied — at home. The Italian government created a dedicated webpage to give teachers access to videoconference tools and ready-made lesson plans. Almost two dozen Mongolian television stations are airing classes. Iran’s government has worked with internet content providers, such as Iran’s version of Netflix, to make all children’s content free.

Even physical education takes place: At least one school in Hong Kong requires students — in their gym uniforms — to follow along as an instructor demonstrates push-ups onscreen, with the students’ webcams on for proof.

The offline reality of online learning, though, is challenging. There are technological hurdles, as well as the unavoidable distractions that pop up when children and teenagers are left to their own devices — literally.

Thira Pang, a 17-year-old high school student in Hong Kong, has been late for class several times because internet connection is slow. She has taken to logging on 15 minutes early.

“It’s just a bit of luck to see whether you can get in,” she said.

The new classroom at home poses greater problems for younger students, and their older caregivers. Ruby Tan, a primary school teacher in Chongqing, a city in southwestern China that suspended schools last month, said many grandparents were helping with child care so that the parents can go to work. But the grandparents do not always know how to use the necessary technology.

“They don’t have any way of supervising the children’s learning, and instead let them develop bad habits of not being able to focus during study time,” Ms. Tan said.

Some interruptions are unavoidable. Posts on Chinese social media show teachers and students climbing onto rooftops or hovering outside neighbors’ homes in search of a stronger signal. One family in Inner Mongolia packed up its yurt and migrated elsewhere in the grasslands for better internet, a Chinese magazine reported.

The closings have also altered the normal milestones of education. In Japan, the school year typically ends in March. Many schools are now restricting the ceremonies to teachers and students only.

When Satoko Morita’s son graduated from high school in Akita Prefecture, in northern Japan, on March 1, she was not there. It will be the same for her daughter’s ceremony at elementary school.

“My daughter asked me, ‘What’s the point of attending and delivering speeches in the ceremony without parents?’” she said.

For Chloe Lau, a Hong Kong student, the end of her high school education came to an abrupt halt because of the closings. Her last day was supposed to be on April 2, but schools in Hong Kong will not resume until at least April 20.

A Burden on Women

With the closings, families are having to rethink how they support themselves and split household responsibilities. The burden has fallen particularly hard on women, who across the world are still largely responsible for child care.

Babysitters are in short supply or leery of taking children from hard-hit regions.

Lee Seong-yeon, a health information manager at a hospital in Seoul, South Korea, has an 11-year-old son who has been out of school since the government suspended schools nationwide, starting on Monday of this week. South Korea has reported the highest number of coronavirus cases outside China.

Working from home was never an option for Ms. Lee: As the coronavirus has slammed the country, she and her husband, also a hospital employee, have had more work duties than ever.

So Ms. Lee’s son spends each weekday alone, eating lunchboxes of sausage and kimchi fried rice that Ms. Lee prepares ahead of time.

“I think I would have quit my job if my son were younger, because I wouldn’t have been able to leave him alone at home,” Ms. Lee said.

Still, she feels that her career will suffer anyway. “I try to get off work at 6 p.m. sharp, even when others at the office are still at their desks, and I run home to my son and make him dinner,” she said. “So I know there is no way I am ever going to be acknowledged for my career at work.”

For mothers with few safety nets, the options are even more limited.

In Athens, Greece, Anastasia Moschos said she had been lucky. After her 6-year-old son’s school was closed for a week for disinfection, Ms. Moschos, 47, an insurance broker, was able to leave her son with her father, who was visiting, while she went to work. But if the schools stay closed for longer, she may have to scramble to find help.

“We’re a community where there is usually a grandfather or a grandmother that can look after a child. The assumption is that everyone has someone to assist,” she said. “That’s not the case with me. I’m a single mother, and I don’t have help at home.”

Even mothers who have been able to leave affected areas have had trouble finding child care. Cristina Tagliabue, an entrepreneur in communications from Milan — the center of an outbreak in Italy — recently moved with her 2-year-old son to her second home in Rome. But a day care would not accept her son, because other parents did not want anyone from Milan near their children, Ms. Tagliabue said.

On Wednesday, Italian officials said they would extend school closings beyond Milan and northern Italy to the entire nation starting on Thursday. They will remain closed until March 15, officials said.

The closings — which include day cares in addition to schools and universities — are likely to create problems for parents around the country.

Ms. Tagliabue has had to turn down several job proposals since she is unable to work at home without a babysitter for her young child.

“It’s right to close schools, but that has a cost,” she said. “The government could have done something for mothers — we are also in quarantine.”

Beyond the Classroom

Entire industries and businesses that rely on the rituals of students going to school and parents going to work are also being shaken.

School administrators in Japan, caught off guard by the abrupt decision to close schools, have rushed to cancel orders for cafeteria lunches, stranding food suppliers with piles of unwanted groceries and temporarily unneeded employees.

Kazuo Tanaka, deputy director of the Yachimata School Lunch Center in central Japan, said his center had to cancel ingredients for about 5,000 lunches for 13 schools. It would cost the center about 20 million yen, nearly $200,000, each month that school was out, he said.

“Bakeries are blown,” said Yuzo Kojima, secretary general at the National School Lunch Association. “Dairy farmers and vegetable farmers will be hit. The workers at the school lunch centers cannot work.

“The impact is large,” he continued. “The announcement was too abruptly made for us to prepare for anything.”

Mr. Kojima added that the association had discussed donating food for children who rely on a school-provided lunch as their main meal of the day. Some cities’ school lunch suppliers have sold excess vegetables for cheap. The lunch association in one city in central Japan sold out of 50 half-price Chinese cabbage in 15 minutes.

To blunt the economic effects of the coronavirus, Japan’s government is offering financial help to parents, small businesses and health care providers. But school lunch officials said they had not heard about compensation for their workers.

In Hong Kong, many of the city’s sizable population of domestic helpers have been left without work as parents who can afford to have enrolled their children in schools overseas.

Demand for nannies had already dropped 30 to 40 percent in the beginning of the outbreak, because many companies allowed parents to work from home, said Felix Choi, the director of Babysitter.hk, a nanny service. Now, as the Hong Kong government has extended school closings to at least the end of April, some expatriate families have decided to leave the city rather than wait out the closings in Hong Kong.

“Over 30 percent of our client base is Western expat families, and I’m not seeing many of them coming back to Hong Kong at this moment,” Mr. Choi said. “Most of them informed us they will only come back after school restarts.”

Those who did not have the option of leaving are making the best of the situation. Ms. Gao, in Hong Kong, said a friend had delivered some flour to help her family weather the outbreak. Her daughters like to play with it.

She has been trying to enjoy the time off. Her job as a security guard requires her to be on her feet. So she was taking the time to sit.

Vivian Wang reported from Hong Kong, and Makiko Inoue from Tokyo. Reporting was contributed by Su-Hyun Lee from Seoul, Constant Méheut from Paris, Elisabetta Povoledo from Rome, Niki Kitsantonis from Athens, and Farnaz Fassihi from New York.


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