Many parents are filled with angst as they prepare for their children to exit a year of pandemic isolation: Will it be OK to send them to school, per the recent recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention? Will school feel like school if students are masked and can’t trade snacks? Will children’s development be impaired by nearly a year of seeing few friends?
With 20-20 hindsight, I can provide some reassurance, because my kids were 8 and 10 when SARS hit Beijing nearly two decades ago, shutting down the city for months: Your children will likely be fine, and maybe even better as human beings for having lived through this tragic experience.
I’ve heard Americans say that SARS was not as bad as covid-19. It was if you lived in Beijing in 2002-03, as my family did. SARS didn’t hit the United States, probably in part because it was much harder for Chinese to get passports or visas in those days, and there were far fewer flights between the countries.
While SARS, as far as we know, isn’t spread as readily — especially by people who were asymptomatic — it was far deadlier than covid, killing more than 50% of those older than 64 who were infected, and 14% to 15% of patients overall.
For about five months, my family’s SARS lockdown was similar to your family’s covid experience: Fear was ever-present. Schools, movie houses, restaurants and stores closed. Vacations were canceled. Everyone wore masks, many of them makeshift. Pharmacy shelves emptied. Temperature checks were everywhere, even at random stops on country roads. (And under an authoritarian government, quarantines are not suggestions — people could be forcibly removed from their family homes and sent to quarantine sites.)
Making matters worse, the Chinese government covered up the SARS epidemic, posting soldiers outside of hospital gates as ambulances streamed in. The public had — probably still has — no idea how many were ill and dying.
Though many foreigners left Beijing, we stayed and kept our kids in the International School, one of the few schools that remained open.
My logic was that they were safer in the controlled environment of their well-run elementary school than going through a crowded airport and getting on a plane to return to New York. And safer than hanging out at home, with a babysitter and a few friends coming and going.
Studies in the United States and Europe in the past six months suggest that a similar logic should apply now. Rates of covid are lower in communities where schools have opened than in nearby areas where they have not. That makes sense: In elementary school, kids’ days are filled with many requirements they hate but abide by: sitting at a desk. Standing in line. The daily math quiz. Some new anti-covid rules can join the list.
When SARS came to Beijing, the rules at school multiplied and were more strictly enforced. Students washed their hands for 20 seconds, as frequently as instructed. Their temperatures were taken every time they walked in the door. (There were no tests for SARS.) They sat a good distance apart, and couldn’t share snacks. Parents were warned, on pain of punishment, not to send their children to school if they were the slightest bit ill.
With only about 10 to 15 kids per class after many had fled, the density was such that they did not have to wear masks, which were hard to score anyway. Today, some public health officials feel that masking is not essential for children when good classroom hygiene measures and distancing are in place. Masks aren’t used in many European primary schools that have remained open, without serious consequence. Still, if I had young kids right now, I would want them masked in school — it’s not a big deal for some extra security, so why not?
As the CDC notes, American schools need to be given resources to, for example, improve ventilation. Maybe schools will have to be creative to keep students better-spaced: splitting days, where half the children go in the morning and half later. Maybe nearby office buildings could offer room for classes. Maybe no indoor sports or choir concerts.
Schooling can be made safe during the pandemic without waiting for every teacher and staff member to be vaccinated, as some teachers unions are demanding. The parental angst that is entirely justified now is the concern about how far their children might have fallen behind academically during a year of remote instruction. Children from low-income families, especially, need in-person school.
Living through SARS, I think, taught my children important lessons, and not just about hygiene. It taught them how to make sacrifices for the sake of friends, family and community. It helped them model how to live carefully, but not paralyzed by fear.
Today, both 20-somethings, they don’t remember much about that period, though they have vivid memories of birthday parties before and after. The months lived with a thousand restrictions were just filed away as one of those formative life experiences. SARS helped teach them that most important life lesson — resilience — and the understanding that during hard times you don’t get everything you want.
This story was produced by KHN (Kaiser Health News), a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.
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