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



Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times

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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 forced at least nine 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.



Kyodo, via Reuters

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.

39岁的法国人朱莉娅·博萨尔(Julia Bossard)是两个孩子的母亲。她说,自从大儿子的学校因消毒而停课两周后,她不得不重新考虑自己的整个日常安排。现在,她每天的工作就是帮孩子们做作业,在超市里寻找越来越少的意大利面、大米和罐头食品。“我们必须重新安排自己的生活,”她说。


China Daily/Reuters

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.

17岁的香港高中生希拉·庞(Thira Pang)因为网络连接速度慢而好几次上课迟到。她只好提前15分钟登录。

“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.

家庭教室给年幼的学生和照顾他们的长辈带来了更大的麻烦。上个月,中国西南部城市重庆一所停课小学的老师露比·谭(Ruby Tan)说,很多家庭是祖父母帮忙照顾孩子,让父母去上班。但祖父母并不总是知道如何使用必要的技术。

“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.

3月1日,森田佐子(Satoko Morita,音)的儿子从日本北部秋田县的高中毕业时,她没能出席。她还将错过女儿的小学毕业典礼。

“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.

由于学校停课,香港学生克洛伊·刘(Chloe Lau)的高中学业戛然而止。她的学期最后一天本应是4月2日,但香港学校至少要到4月20日才能复课。


Eugene Hoshiko/Associated Press

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.

韩国首尔一家医院的健康信息经理李成妍(Lee Seong-yeon,音)有一个11岁的儿子,自从政府本周一在全国范围内停课以来一直没能上学。韩国是中国境外报告冠状病毒病例最多的国家。

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.

在希腊雅典,阿纳斯塔西娅·莫斯乔斯(Anastasia Moschos)说她很幸运。她6岁儿子的学校关闭一周进行消毒,现年47岁的保险经纪人莫斯乔斯在上班前可以将儿子交给来看望她的父亲。但是,如果学校还要关闭更长时间,她可能不得不到处寻求帮助。

“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, a 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 mothers did not want anyone from Milan near their children, Ms. Tagliabue said.

即使是能够离开疫区的母亲,也难以获得儿童保育服务。通讯业的创业者克里斯蒂娜·塔格里亚布(Cristina Tagliabue)来自意大利疫情中心米兰,最近带着两岁的儿子搬到了在罗马的另一个住处。但是,塔格里亚布说,日托不愿接收她的儿子,因为其他母亲不希望任何来自米兰的人靠近她们的孩子。

She 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.”



Yorgos Karahalis/Associated Press

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.

日本中部八街市学校午餐中心副主任田中和雄(Kazuo Tanaka,音)说,他的中心不得不取消13家学校约5000份午餐的食材。他说,学校每关闭一个月,中心的损失约为2000万日元,约合130万元人民币。

“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.

“面包店完了,”全国学校午餐协会秘书长小岛雄三(Yuzo Kojima,音)说。“奶农和菜农将遭受打击。学校午餐中心的工人无法上班。”

“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.

保姆服务机构寻保网主管菲利克斯·蔡(Felix Choi)表示,在疫情暴发初期,因为许多公司允许父母在家工作,人们对保姆的需求已经下降了30%至40%。现在,随着香港政府将停课时间延长到最早四月底,一些外籍家庭决定离开香港而不是等待在香港开学。

“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.



Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times