How One Family Is Dealing With Life, Disrupted

How One Family Is Dealing With Life, Disrupted

It is an experience many in the U.S. are now facing, to one degree or another: sudden school and office closures, event cancellations, shortages of toilet paper and cleaning supplies, and fears about being exposed to the contagious respiratory virus. Parents are worrying about how they’ll manage child care and remote-work arrangements, and how long all this could last. And we are all learning that we will have to be very adaptable for the foreseeable future.

Finding the space

Living under the new restrictions meant spending a lot of time at home—and making it serve as an office and a school, as well as a living space. It wasn’t an ideal fit: a 650-square-foot, two-bedroom flat, a cluttered space shared by two adults, two rambunctious boys and a cat.

The children initially cheered upon learning about the school closures, thinking that meant an extended holiday. We all sighed when the American international school my sons attend said that virtual lessons would be conducted over the course of each school day.

There would be live teaching via Google Hangouts, assignments that students had to complete in set time frames, and online music, art and physical-education classes. Parents were told to download education and reading apps and were given links to folders with slide presentations, video recordings, online meetings and numerous worksheets.

My sons—ages 5 and 7—couldn’t take part in live lessons concurrently from our single family computer, so I went out and bought an iPad and a printer. At the shop, a salesman said he had sold more than a dozen printers that same day “to people just like you, who have kids that will be schooling at home.”

The dining table, couch and coffee table have become virtual schoolrooms.


Serena Ng/The Wall Street Journal

Then there was the question of workspace. With no space for study desks in the bedrooms, the children have been using the dining table, couch and coffee tables for virtual school lessons on weekdays.

Initially, I thought I could set up my work laptop in a common area in my apartment complex with tables and chairs after cleaning them with disinfecting wipes—but that venue was also closed by the building’s management

On the first day of virtual school, I felt my stress level rising as my kids called out for me to help them as I tried to answer emails and messages from work. “Leave them to me,” said my husband, a full-time dad, and I left the apartment to find an alternative venue. I texted a co-worker and asked if I could come to her flat to work. She obliged, though I felt like I was contravening office rules about working remotely and worried that I might unknowingly infect her if I caught the virus on the subway en route to her home.

As a stopgap measure, my company rented two small rooms in a hostel and set up screens and workstations for staffers who couldn’t work from home. I spent several days there, before the rooms were abruptly closed when Hong Kong’s health authorities said there was a confirmed coronavirus case in a nearby building.

I eventually found another location—the studio apartment of another co-worker who was out of the country. It was a quiet respite from my home, but hunching over a small laptop and working in isolation for days on end, with contact with co-workers limited to emails and phone calls, brought its own difficulties. Many, including myself, struggled with concentration and the lack of face-to-face interactions. We organized several online group meetings so that people could share experiences and stay in touch with each other.

I also felt guilty that my spouse was shouldering the burden of getting the children through their schoolwork, so I stayed in some mornings to help. But trying to get a 5-year-old to sit in front of a screen and watch his teacher talk for more than 10 minutes is a challenge in itself. One day, I let him paint a picture while he listened passively to a 45-minute online music lesson (we turned off the iPad camera so that the teacher couldn’t see him).

Sticking to the familiar

With libraries, gyms, museums, theme parks and most sports facilities closed, in our leisure time we have been going hiking, hanging out at the beach and cycling in the sun. We still eat at our favorite restaurants on weekends. I carry hand sanitizer and wipes everywhere, but have accepted that I can’t keep all our hands clean all the time. (My children have also refused to wear masks, complaining they are uncomfortable.)

We’ve had to make other adjustments. When food and cleaning supplies were in short supply in stores last month, I bought a half-liter bottle of hand sanitizer from a neighbor who had stocked up on it during a work trip in Finland. My husband went to the supermarket every few days at its 8 a.m. opening time to buy rice, toilet paper and wipes before panic buyers came and cleared the shelves. During this period, my second-grader had to use “scrounge” in a sentence for phonics class. He wrote: “I have to scrounge for T.P.!”

Cycling has become a recreational mainstay. Both sons refuse to wear masks, saying they are uncomfortable.


Serena Ng/The Wall Street Journal

(That turned into a delicate subject. I gave a few rolls of toilet paper to co-workers who were unable to buy them. One gave me Purell wipes that she had bought from

in return.)

Dow Jones partially reopened its Hong Kong and China offices at the beginning of March, bringing back a sense of normalcy for staffers. Employees have to use a sign-up sheet to reserve spots, go through daily temperature checks at the office reception, and wash or sanitize their hands upon arrival.

The earliest date Hong Kong schools will reopen is April 20. The city likely has to go through at least 14 days without a new coronavirus infection before the government will let students and teachers congregate again. That has yet to happen; Hong Kong this week reported more than a dozen new infections, raising its total cases to around 130. Friends who lived in Hong Kong during the 2003 SARS epidemic predict that schools won’t reopen until the next academic year begins in August. It is a prospect I dread, but we will probably go on doing what we’re doing.

As our new normal has set in, I’ve learned to appreciate the small freedoms we still have and how resilient my children have been. I previously had only a vague idea about what they were learning in school, and now I can see every detail of every lesson. Last week, the boys wrote poems, came up with alliterative sentences, sketched animals, and submitted math worksheets and recordings of themselves reading to their teachers.

A few days ago, my 7-year-old figured out how to email me at work during his virtual school day. “hi mom don’t forget to send things!” he wrote in a string of emails, to which I replied with emojis and asked him to focus on his lessons. At 3 p.m., the email chain concluded with his last message: “END OF SCHOOL!!!1!1!!!! YAY!!!!”

Ms. Ng is The Wall Street Journal’s Asia finance editor in Hong Kong. She can be reached at