HONG KONG — Here in Hong Kong, elementary schools resumed classes in late May. On her first day back, my 7-year-old daughter woke up before the rest of us. She put on her uniform straight away, a red polo dress that was now too short for her after months of sitting idly in the closet. When she heard my bedroom door open, she ran to me, her curly-haired head crashing into my stomach, and said, “I’m ready!” In her hand she held a shopping bag filled with old paper towel rolls for a craft project, a daily temperature log, three masks — one to wear and two to spare — and a travel declaration.

All told, my daughter’s international school was closed due to COVID-19 for 73 school days, beginning in late January. When my family moved from Philadelphia to Hong Kong last July for my husband’s high school teaching job, we never imagined that we would find ourselves in the middle of a pandemic with a preschooler and a second grader, far from the support of our friends and family. Like the rest of the world, we figured out a way to muddle through. We were unsure if Hong Kong schools would resume at all, but in late spring the virus stabilized and the Education Bureau deemed it safe to return. My daughter would attend classes for just three weeks before the summer holidays began and her day would be only 2.5 hours long. Even this small return to normalcy felt like a gift.

Hong Kong recorded a total of 18 new coronavirus cases in the two weeks leading up to school resumption, and all but three of those were imported. Nonresidents are currently unable to travel to Hong Kong (with a few exceptions related to essential operations), and all residents entering the city must be tested for the virus upon arrival. Those who test positive are sent directly to the hospital and anyone testing negative is required to quarantine for two weeks. My husband and I were wary about sending our daughter back, but the low number of cases combined with the city’s strict testing protocol at the border helped us feel confident in our decision. There were some families in our community who chose not to send their kids, however, and the school provided home-learning options for those children.

The first day of school, post-COVID

When we arrived at the school drop-off point that first morning, we saw several teachers lining the walkway. They stood six feet apart from each other and waved neon poster-board signs adorned with phrases like “Woo-hoo, you’re back!” and “Welcome back, rock stars!” A pop song played on a portable speaker and bubbles drifted over to us from a nearby bubble machine. A staff member gave my daughter a squirt of hand sanitizer and directed her through the front door. She was in such a rush to get to her classroom that she barely gave me a wave before disappearing inside.

Her classroom, as she later relayed to me, looked very different than the one she left in January. The desks were spaced one meter apart and all the students sat facing the same direction. Any soft furnishings — rugs, throw pillows, and cozy armchairs — were gone. The kids still gathered on the floor for story time, but instead of their usual hand-holding and knee-touching, they sat evenly spaced from each other on little red X’s. There was no lunch and no recess. Masks were required for the duration of the day, with the exception of snack time and PE. In the gym, the students stood barefaced and did their exercises from socially distant boxes taped to the floor.

Tanya Underwood's 7-year-old daughter inside her Hong Kong school.
Tanya Underwood
Tanya Underwood's 7-year-old daughter inside her Hong Kong school.

Still, when I picked her up that day, her eyes shone with excitement. She bounced repeatedly on the balls of her feet and swung her backpack back and forth. As we walked to our apartment, she said: “Mom, that was so fun! I can’t wait to do it again tomorrow.” She talked about seeing her beloved teacher again. She updated me on her classmates. She did not mention all the new safety measures or complain about having to wear a mask.

Returning to school was ‘a sigh of relief'

My therapist once told me that her psychology community is referring to this pandemic as a collective trauma, one shared by the entire world. I can certainly see evidence of this in the microcosm of my own household. The isolation and disruption of routine have been hard on both of my girls, but especially my 7-year-old. Sometime in late March, after school had been closed for a couple of months, she began having trouble sleeping. When my husband and I asked her about it she said she was worried about me, and her grandparents, and even Beaker (the dog) getting COVID. She was scared of being the last person in the house awake — convinced that if she were alone something bad would happen. She often woke up several times a night, padding into our room and shaking us gently by the shoulders.

Within a few days of school resuming, her sleep situation started to improve, and by the end of the school year, she was able to sleep through the night in her own bed. It felt, for a moment, as if we could all breathe a sigh of relief.

This is not to say we had a tidy COVID happy ending. Our reprieve was short-lived. About a month into the summer holidays, the virus picked up steam again. The city wants to avoid a full shutdown, but old, familiar restrictions are now clicking back into place — public gatherings are limited to four people, summer camps are canceled, and all local schools (which end later than international schools) are closed for the rest of the school year. We don’t know if schools will resume in the fall, but we are holding on to those three weeks we had in the spring as a bright spot in this surreal year. For a short time, at least, our daughter could return to a version of herself that felt safe.

Tanya Underwood is a writer living in Hong Kong.