A composite image showing a stock image of a child being home schooled, and the author's daily schedule while quarantining during the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak.
Getty Images/Janet Lam
  • Janet Lam, now a 24-year-old university student, was eight during Hong Kong's SARS outbreak between 2002 and 2003.
  • Though many businesses were still open as normal, schools were closed for at least six weeks.
  • Here, Lam reflects on how her mom kept her busy and learning during her time off school, and shares advice for parents learning how to keep their children occupied during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
  • For more stories visit Business Insider South Africa.

Daily case reporting on TV, school closures, self-isolation - to many Hong Kongers, this is a replica of what went through 17 years ago during the severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, outbreak from 2002 to 2003.

SARS brought Hong Kong 1,755 cases, almost 300 deaths, and - for eight-year-old me - six weeks without school.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread and send countries around the world into lockdown, I recalled how my mom made sure the six weeks my twin sister and I spent at home were meaningful - and as she said herself, "school closure doesn't mean you stop learning."

Nearly two decades later, her skillful parenting still rings true. Here's my advice to parents trying to navigate how to keep your children occupied and learning while school's out.

1. Set a routine for your child. Then teach them how to plan for their own time.

As soon as my school cancelled lessons, my mom made sure we had a daily routine to adhere to.

On weekdays we woke up as normal, did our remaining assignments from school, and had time for physical exercise - which consisted of stretching and some jumping around in our small apartment. We looked forward to weekends just as we would at school.

This sense of time was especially important when none of us knew how long this confinement was going to last.

The author's daily schedule while quarantining during Hong Kong's SARS outbreak, from March 31 to April 11, 2003. She had homework and revision every day, except for weekends.
Janet Lam

After our first week of planned activities, my mom told us that adults don't have someone to schedule their daily routine for them - they did it themselves.

Eager to act like adults as all kids do, we gradually learned how to keep ourselves busy. That spared my mom a lot of time and headache, and she rightfully earned her time off as a full-time homemaker.

2. Allow plenty of time for your kid's hobbies.

A reading log that the author's mother made her during the SARS lockdown. The author had to write reports after reading some of the books.
Janet Lam

I was a nerdy kid who dived into books whenever I could - even when I was sitting on the toilet! - so my mom made sure I had plenty of books at home, even if that needed her travelling back and forth to the public library to pick up more books.

(Public libraries were still open at the time, and because this was in the pre-iPhone era, ebooks weren't a thing yet.)

We were also super into online role-playing games (RPG) - and once I had completed my daily assignments, my mom let us play on the computer for as long as we wanted.

Staying at home is hard for kids, but we got on fine as we had more time than ever to play video games.

As technology evolves, parents nowadays will likely have more resources than ever to keep their children engaged, even if public facilities are closed.

If there's a subject your kid is particularly interested in, you should find virtual museum tours, free documentaries and kids-directed resources to keep them busy. Don't forget about play time.

People leave Hong Kong's Queen Elizabeth Hospital on October 7, 2003. This hospital was hard-hit during the city's SARS outbreak.
Dustin Shum/South China Morning Post via Getty Images

3. Be open about the epidemic - kids understand more than you think.

I vividly remember how my mom would sit down with me every evening in front of the TV and watch the news together. We saw how the caseload and death toll increased day by day. We cried together when we found out a doctor had died after contracting the virus at work.

It was as difficult a time for children as it was for adults. But even for kids, knowledge brought peace and power.

My mom never hid the truth from me about what was going on out there - even if that meant my becoming excessively worried about being infected and bugging my mom for days with questions.

Knowing how serious the situation was helped me understand why staying home was necessary, and it made me stop asking my mom if I could leave the house.

A picture the author drew during the SARS outbreak: "Who I want to thank: Doctors, nurses, street cleaners and Mom."
Janet Lam

Another good way to help kids learn about what's going on is through role play - absorbing the news can be passive, and role-playing can be an active way for younger kids to understand the situation.

My twin sister and I role played as doctors and nurses, which certainly helped us understand the hardship they were going through during the outbreak, and made us comply with social distancing rules more willingly.

4. Set aside alone time for yourself.

Spending time together 24/7 without any time alone is difficult and would definitely lead to more arguments than ever, especially when everyone is under immense stress.

This could be especially true for working moms who now have to work from home and suddenly have to shoulder the responsibility of teaching on top of parenting.

I would recommend setting yourself some "me time" away from the kids - during the SARS outbreak, my mom would have hours of quietness when my sister and I played online games in our bedroom.

An exercise from the author's mother asking her to give a new meaning to the SARS acronym.
Janet Lam

5. Think about yourself and your partner, too. Be understanding and empathetic.

Without school, an entire family's focus could shift toward the kids. On top of "me time," I would recommend sparing some time and thought for your partner as well.

I still remember my parents getting into intense arguments over disinfecting after returning home from work, and whether or not it was safe enough to visit the countryside over weekends for some fresh air.

As I was writing this article, I asked my mom how she would handle the situation differently now.

She said we should be more understanding toward each other, and understand that much of our loved ones' actions could be driven by the fear of the unknown. Care for your family members. Be empathetic, and keep an open mind about daily life changes that might come with the pandemic.

These are extraordinary times, after all.

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