With American officials now cautioning that Coronavirus outbreaks are highly likely within the 50 states, experts are also urging schools and businesses to prepare for disruptions. If it comes to this, the United States can follow Hong Kong's model—where protests through the fall shut down schools and then the threat of Coronavirus led classrooms to shutter again through the majority of winter.
With schools closed and the city effectively on lockdown as the threat of Coronavirus touched all aspects of public life, students around Hong Kong have been forced to adjust to virtual schooling, and that means mothers have been forced to adjust, too.
"Extending the class suspension has been a difficult decision. Yet as the WHO [World Health Organization] predicted, the epidemic will last for a while and the Bureau thinks it is the safest decision to ensure the physical well-being of students," said Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung in a press statement this week, announcing the decision to push back opening schools until April 20.
For American mom Arcadia Kim and her family, this effectively put their lives in Hong Kong on standstill even though they were all healthy. Rather than wait it out in Hong Kong, the family decided to "self-quarantine" in Hawaii earlier at the beginning of February which they were able to do as American citizens. As the family hastily packed up their lives with just one hour of notice, they included their digital tablets and laptops—which have since become not only their lifelines to home, but also the children's method for schooling.
"Online classes and virtual school look like 'ready player one,'" says Kim, who runs Infinite Screentime, which helps families strike a better balance with screens. "[It's like] some dystopian future where you are plugged into the matrix."
Although screen time is a stressful topic among many modern parents, Kim had a unique vantage point on the perks and pitfalls: A former chief operating officer for Electronic Arts, Los Angeles, she was closely involved in the development of some of the most popular video games in the world—and understands exactly how they were created to be addictive.
After being conscious of her children's screen time throughout their lives, it felt strange for her to encourage them to log hours upon hours on their computers in the name of school. "They are in front of their computers for nearly six hours a day," she says of her children's virtual schooling. "It looks crazy, but this is crazy."
Still, for being pushed into this new way of schooling that they didn't request, Kim was impressed by the way her children quickly adjusted. Whereas they could have lost one year of education, the Kim children now wake up across the ocean from their school, log on by 8 a.m. to receive their assignments and then get to work for the day—which looks like anything from the 13-year-old Skyping with a tutor who is a PhD candidate in microbiology, the 7-year-old assessing the symmetry of objects using a tablet, or the 10-year-old learning scratch programming.
To provide a counterbalance at the end of the screen time-rich school day, the family makes a point of getting out and exploring their new surroundings.
While the circumstances in Hong Kong may be unique, students, parents and educators from around the world are embracing online classrooms for a variety of reasons. According to a 2019 report from the National Education Policy Center (NEPC), nearly 300,000 K-12 students in the United States were enrolled in full-time virtual schools.
However, experts from NEPC, a research organization based out of the University of Colorado at Boulder, expressed concern about the effectiveness of virtual schooling—which is still somewhat of an unregulated, "wild west" approach to education. Notably, the graduation rate from virtual schools is approximately 50 percent while the national average for public schools is 85%.
"Given the lack of understanding of what is actually happening in virtual education, policymakers should require that any virtual school operating in their jurisdiction be required to provide the necessary information to examine the effectiveness of the virtual education that is actually being provided," the authors suggested in the report.
Kim agrees the downsides to virtual schooling remain clear, especially because educators in Hong Kong had to scramble to offer this option on such short notice. "There are some things that seem better and more conducive to learning online than other things," she says. "Can a 7-year-old really understand the significance of the Day of Death by watching YouTube videos only? It would have been much cooler if they could have done the dress-up festival like the school had planned."
Yet Kim says her eyes truly have been opened to the possibilities that virtual schooling presents through this experience—even as she's looking forward to her children having the chance to go back to their normal classrooms. "This is going to be the future," she says. "[Online school] will force kids to be more self-reliant and motivated. Parents will need to be more flexible about what is to come."