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When a house is less a home than a prison

Mar 09,2020
Kids may be relishing two extra weeks of vacation as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, but their parents are less delighted.

Mrs. Cheon, a 33-year-old homemaker in Namyangju, Gyeonggi, dreads waking up in the morning. Her days are filled with her 8-year-old daughter, who can’t go to school or private cram schools as a result of the outbreak, and her husband, whose company is making him work from home for the duration.

“I eat, clean up, clean the house and take care of the child and my husband, all of which makes me feel like I’m working 24 hours a day,” she said. “All three meals a day are a source of stress for me.”

On Monday, the government delayed the first day of the spring semester for all elementary, middle and high schools across the country by two weeks, from March 9 to 23, and parents working at home were given a lot more work.

The biggest concern, many say, is preparing three meals a day, especially when supermarkets close due to virus fears.

Mrs. Kim, a 32-year-old homemaker has a 6-year-old son, a 3-year-old daughter and, these days, a stay-at-home husband. “My husband works from home, and the children are always noisy, so he cannot concentrate and everybody is having a hard time,” she said.
Families in which both spouses work face even more pressure. With schools and day care centers shut, some working mothers have started using emergency child care services provided by the government, which have been ramped up recently. But that has a risk too: the fear of contamination.

According to the Ministry of Education, only 1.8 percent of elementary school children nationwide were registered for emergency child care classes, and of those who signed up, only half actually showed up on the first day of classes on Monday.

According to one elementary school teacher in Seongnam, Gyeonggi, only households in desperate need of help have signed up because most are afraid their children may be exposed to the virus.

One woman who works at a hospital shed tears outside an emergency child care center because she felt remorseful about having to leave her 7-year-old with the other children who showed up, who numbered only five. “I think now is the most difficult time we have faced,” she said.

On social media and online forums for working mothers, what to do with the kids is a regular topic of discussion these days.

One post from a mother expounded on the guilt she felt putting her child at risk of infection at emergency day care centers just for the sake of “earning a few million won.” Dozens of replies posted by mothers in similar situations followed.

Single parents have their own tough row to hoe. Ms. Kim, a 47-year-old single parent living in Boryeong, South Chungcheong, has children in the 3rd and 4th grades who are fending for themselves at home while she goes to work.

“I briefly return home around noon to make them lunch, but my heart aches each time,” she said. “At the office they tell me I should file for temporary leave without pay, but how can I afford that option when I am the only breadwinner?”

Korea’s normally packed cram schools have been hit hard. The Education Ministry recommended all private education facilities to temporarily close their doors, but some have found it difficult to wait out the virus.

One cram school with multiple locations in Daechi-dong — the neighborhood in Gangnam District, southern Seoul, best known for such schools — shut down for a week in late February and then decided it was time to open.

“I know the situation is difficult because of the coronavirus, but we have to pay almost 2 billion won [$1.7 million] in rent every month,” said the school’s administrator. “If we don’t have classes, how can we pay maintenance?”

Some private cram schools want the government to compensate them for their losses.

This is unlikely to happen, given the Education Ministry’s limited budget and few legal precedents for such a scenario, but the government has promised it will subsidize disinfections for some cram schools.

As an alternative to regular classes, the ministry recommends schools hold online courses and has used the government’s public broadcasting education channel, EBS, to promote free public options. Some private cram schools have followed suit, providing free online lectures for students.

BY CHAE HYE-SEON, KIM HONG-BUM and JEON MIN-HEE [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]