Weeks of school closure in South Korea: A home-based working mum's nightmare


SEOUL - Come April 6, I will shed tears of joy and relief when my 10-year-old daughter is allowed to return to school when it officially reopens on the first day of the Spring term.

I'm sure she cannot wait either, to resume a routine that was disrupted when South Korea ordered schools to close for five weeks to stop the spread of the coronavirus, which has so far infected over 9,000 people here.

Important as parent-child bonding time is, we are glad for the break from each other.

As a journalist working from home, it has been a struggle to cope with the challenge of supervising my daughter's online learning and daily needs while dealing with the stress that comes with the demands of a developing global event.

Restful sleep has been a rare luxury.

This has resulted in lethargy on my part and an inability to focus and analyse, as we remain cooped up at home because of the country's social distancing measures.

It has caused me to be on edge, ready to fume when my only child or husband slips up.

I have also exploded when my daughter got nine out of 10 assigned maths questions wrong, and when she took two hours to finish half a bowl of rice.

"We'd die of kid-phobia first before coronavirus," a friend lamented to collective sighs from other mothers I know here.

While the need for South Korea to close schools to keep the young safe is understandable, I also secretly applaud Singapore's decision to keep children in schools.

The decision, the Singapore Government said, is based on science - that Covid-19 does not affect the young very much, with no evidence to show that they are spreaders either.

School closures, it added, will instead disrupt many lives, especially working parents with limited childcare options.

Like parents, schools have a role to play in helping to instil good hygiene habits and a sense of social responsibility in our children.

Life must go on amid the pandemic, and our children need to learn how to protect themselves outside the sanctuary of their home.

In South Korea, when schools are closed, the burden often falls entirely on the parents, especially mothers.

My daughter, who attends an international school in Seoul, has been stuck at home with me since Feb 15, when her one-week-long mid-term vacation began amid the outbreak.

My husband has been away from home, running his business.

While I was buried in work, she re-read all her favourite books, binge-watched videos on YouTube, and video-called her friends to play online games.

During that time, patient No. 31 tested positive on Feb 18, and all hell broke loose.

The numbers infected spiked quickly into the thousands, plunging the country into its worst-ever health crisis.

A day before my daughter was to return to school on Feb 24, I received an e-mail that it would keep its doors closed until March 9, in line with the Education Ministry's decision to delay the start of the Spring term by a week.

The date has since been pushed back two more times. For now, it looks like all schools will reopen on April 6.

With schools closed, online learning started immediately and so did my headaches.

Every morning, my daughter would dial in to a Google Hangout session with her teacher and classmates, and spend the day on a list of assigned tasks.

Regular school hours are from 8.15am to 3.30pm, but she spends 12 hours on her tasks at home, as she is too easily distracted.

With no teacher in the room to guide her, nor friends to bounce ideas off, I have become her lifebuoy.

"Mummy what does this mean?" "Mummy what should I do?" "Mummy I don't understand."

My life has become a blur as I try to multi-task from the dining table, having moved my laptop out of my home office to be physically close to her, and save some time in meal preparations.

While keeping abreast of South Korea's coronavirus fight, I have also had to immerse myself in Chinese history in order to explain to my daughter the importance of the relationship between Kublai Khan - the first Mongolian to become king of unified China - and Italian explorer Marco Polo.

I had to explain how international trade flourished along the Silk Road during Kublai's reign of the Yuan Dynasty, and why this should matter to her in today's world.

Besides history, long multiplication, fractions and decimals have returned to haunt me.

I have also had to give her ideas on how to write a sequel to an Iranian story about a brave girl, help her design an anti-coronavirus poster for Chinese class, and find examples of Singapore legends and superstitions which she had to list for culture class.

All of that while juggling work deadlines and worrying about the depleting food supply at home.

I have also had to navigate online and on the phone with many government offices for information for my reports, while plotting a path around toys and dirty laundry that had been piling up.

It is only natural that mothers have forged a solidarity, to preserve our collective sanity.

A friend texted to complain about how she had to help her seven-year-old son conduct science experiments that she felt was too difficult for students his age, and having to film him playing football alone for what she called a "ridiculous physical education lesson".

Another friend lamented she could supervise only one of her three children in her studies, as that was all the time she had left from juggling endless chores and cooking.

All of us have unwittingly become teachers, as a result of the shortfall in online learning strategies. To be fair, educators have also had to scramble to find the best ways to conduct cyber lessons.

We have had to e-mail the teachers to voice our concerns, fill in surveys with hopes of improving the system, encourage one another to keep the fragile system going and try to plan some play dates around our busy schedules so our kids can stop whining about missing their friends.

As the coronavirus continues to wreak havoc on global health, we mums here are experiencing symptoms of a different kind in the face of school closures - a pain in the chest from scolding our kids, flushed cheeks from fits of rage when instructions are ignored, and shortness of breath caused by sheer exasperation.

Parents, you have been warned.

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