OXFORD, England — I sent my kids to school this morning, business as usual. They had P.E. kits to pack and packets of history homework to be graded. My oldest turned in a 31-page report on quantum computing that he’s been working on for months.
Here in England, we are one of the last European nations to close down schools, despite the increasing spread of COVID-19. The prime minister just announced they’ll close on Friday, indefinitely.
It may be the last time my kids get to see many of their peers. Our plan was to return to the United States in July, but the plan changes with each day. Many international friends here in Oxford are leaving for their home countries within the week. In times of crisis, most of us find there is no place like home.
Students of healthcare workers and other essential jobs will still go to school. So will children in high-risk situations. To me it seems an incredibly humane way to deal with this virus.
We all knew this was coming, and teachers are as ready as they can be. Online assignments will begin Monday. We are preparing to take many, many walks in the countryside.
We are dealing with an untested virus and a chronically understaffed healthcare system. The outcome is unpredictable. The British are on edge, but this is England, land of stolid people.
They were battered by two world wars. They hunkered down during the Blitz. They’ve lived through a lifetime of miserable winters, cold that seeps into the bones, the grey cap of sky and clouds that spit rain in every direction. There is a heartiness to their character, and they are not ones to panic.
The elderly are out for their daily constitutionals, bundling against the spring chill and giving a curt nod to passersby. Social distancing is how the British live 12 months of the year.
I went down to the center of Oxford recently to mail a package. I expected to find a ghost town, but the city was still active.
In the Covered Market, I stepped into the Cake Shop to inquire about ordering a birthday cake for my youngest son. The workers were busy rolling fondant for miniature Harry Potter scenes. They set out a price list for me on the counter.
“But will you close any day now?’ I asked, doubtful.
The woman jutted out her chin. “We’ll stay open until the government tells us we can’t.”
Oxford finished its Hilary term last Friday, and all the students have gone home. All the libraries and museums are closed. Some of the colleges have begun to shutter their doors. Christ Church — Oxford’s most famous college — closed Monday, even to its senior lecturers, partly because of the virus, but mostly because three historic paintings, including a 17th Century Van Dyck, were stolen from its gallery on Saturday.
I guess that with all the distraction, it’s a good time to be a thief.
The most noticeable change can be seen in the pubs. These gathering spots are the lifeblood of British society. Most are decidedly quiet, now that Boris Johnson has encouraged people to stay away. Before that, they were teeming with locals. There are reports that the London underground is still packed with commuters.
Did I mention that people here can be stubborn?
Like everywhere in the world, there is panic buying at the supermarkets. We order our groceries online, but I took a peek at Sainsbury’s in the mall, just out of curiosity. Milk cleaned out. Bread aisle empty. In British grocery stores, there is an entire aisle dedicated to baked beans, which are a staple of the English breakfast. There wasn’t a can to be found.
The harried man who brought us our groceries on Monday summed it up: “All is madness.”
We worry for the small businesses. We worry for the homeless. We worry for the students and their canceled, end-of-year tests. Kids in Sixth Form (equivalent to junior and senior years of high school in the U.S.) spend two years preparing for their big A-level exams in May and June.
Those exams determine where they will go to university. There is no other criteria. Those tests have now been canceled, as have the GCSE’s (General Certificate of Secondary Education) for the lower grades. Thousands of students’ futures are in limbo.
We have a friend who is slated to attend Cambridge this fall, but only if she gets high marks on her A-levels. Will the students have to sit another year of school? Take exams in August, and wait to start university in October or later? These are the questions swirling around our heads.
We had 27 friends and relatives planning to visit us this spring. Most have canceled. My boys were scheduled to perform in Royal Albert Hall on Easter Sunday in a once-in-a-lifetime orchestra gala. It too has been called off.
A year ago, those things would have brought me to tears. That was before I came to England, a land scarred and scraped by history’s brutal knife. There is a resolve here, a fortitude, in everyday life that I find hard to put into words.
I read a book recently that said of the 3,000 students enrolled in Oxford at the start of World War I, some 2,700 lost their lives. Perspective is one of life’s great teachers.
We will, as they say here, keep calm and carry on.
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