Coronavirus Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives. For the latest public health information, please refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. For Slate’s coronavirus coverage, click here.
We are on day 22 of no school in Hong Kong, not counting weekends. In late January, the government asked residents to avoid crowded places and large gatherings. The schools closed, and the museums and sports facilities shut down soon after. Restaurants remain open but empty. The Education Bureau announced last week that school would reopen on April 20 at the earliest. The city is in a holding pattern, and so are we.
My older daughter is in second grade at an international school. Each day around 4 p.m., her teacher emails a “home learning” plan for the next day. For a 7-year-old who doesn’t yet know how to work independently, “home learning” means home schooling. In our version of home school, both parents work, and there is also a 3-year-old prowling around the house, attempting to eat Legos or color the couch with a Sharpie.
To be honest, during the first week of school closure, I didn’t even open the teacher’s emails. I struggled to keep up with my own assignments as a freelance writer. No way did I have time to also teach my child. My husband, a teacher himself, said he did some learning with her that week. It wasn’t very much, and it certainly wasn’t consistent. Fortunately, things have calmed a bit since then. We’ve settled into a routine where our daughter meets every weekday morning with one or two—no large gatherings!—second graders in our apartment building, and they do their work together. It is good enough for now, but I worry my daughter will fall behind grade level.
Her teacher calls each student once a week and also facilitates weekly small-group video chats—as much remote instruction as their young attention spans can handle. Last week, he asked the students what color they associated with home learning, an exercise in getting the kids to talk about their feelings. My daughter said, without hesitation, “A low yellow.” When I asked her why she gave that answer, she said, “Because yellow means happy, and I’m not as happy right now.” Her explanation did not surprise me. She is still a happy kid, but she cries more often. She misses her school friends and worries about getting sick. She is afraid to touch door handles or elevator buttons as we leave the building to walk to the neighborhood grocery store or nearby beach. When we talk about the virus, she asks to change the subject. These days, she threads herself around me the second I sit down, her arms locked in mine, her head in the crook of my neck, like human connection is the only thing keeping her safe.
My husband is a high school biology teacher at the same international school where my daughter attends second grade. He’s still teaching his full course load, except now everything is online. He conducts most of the classes from our balcony, which is on the 10th floor and overlooks Hong Kong’s signature lush green hills. It’s the only reliably quiet spot in our apartment. Each class begins with a COVID-19 check-in. They review new data, then discuss how the outbreak has changed over time. My husband gives the students a few minutes to ask questions or share concerns before moving on to the planned lesson.
Sometimes he turns his computer screen outward so he and his students can watch the black kites (a kind of small raptor) that swoop gracefully above our apartment building. They call the birds their “class pets.” It is a comfort to all of them, I think, that nature remains unchanged. At the end of a long balcony day last week, my husband told me that he’s depressed. A laptop screen with 20 small faces staring at him is a poor substitute for joking around with his students during labs, and saying “hi” to them in the hallways. He wants what we all want: for life to feel normal again.
Still, we spend more time outside, and we spend more time together. Every other Friday, we meet up with a group of friends and their children and hike to the local country park for a BBQ. There, we watch the kids chuck rocks into the reservoir, an area they call “Mars” because of the reddish earth that surrounds it. The name is apt because even though we live on an island with 7 million people, we are usually the only ones in sight on these outings, the lone inhabitants of a strange planet. The kids cook their dinner and dessert over the fire. Their fingers get sticky with grease and marshmallow. The portable speaker plays Vampire Weekend, or Taylor Swift, or maybe even hair metal. The kids complain about the hair metal, but they always dance anyway. We don’t talk about the virus in those moments, or all the what-ifs. On these evenings, it feels like we are getting away with something.