Coronavirus: senior students to head back to classrooms in Hong Kong, but pupils over the border still stuck at home

Chan Ho-him

About 150,000 senior secondary students in Hong Kong will return to school from Wednesday after a four-month class suspension due to the coronavirus pandemic, but up to 2,500 of the city’s pupils who live across the border will continue to study online.

Students from Form Three to Five will begin half-day classes under a phased resumption schedule, followed by lower forms next month.

But education officials are still discussing with Shenzhen authorities arrangements for the daily commute of cross-border pupils, including mandatory virus tests and possible direct transport between checkpoints and schools.

Masks, lost progress and summer break among questions facing Hong Kong schools

The return to classes might also be affected by plans of student concern groups from dozens of schools to stage sit-ins and class boycotts on Wednesday to protest against proposed national security and anthem laws for Hong Kong.

Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung Yun-hung on Tuesday warned against non-cooperative movements at schools, which he said would jeopardise benefits students enjoyed, and called on pupils to avoid any illegal activities.

According to a non-governmental organisation providing cross-border social services, parents living in mainland China with children who attend schools in Hong Kong are growing increasingly concerned over when they can return to the classroom.

Schools in Yuen Long, Tai Po and North districts are among those with the most number of such pupils. Lin Chun-pong, vice-chairman of one of the city’s biggest school heads associations, said some schools would resort to teaching such students via live-streamed lessons or video make-up classes on weekends.

Torres Lee Chi-hung, service coordinator at non-governmental group International Social Service Hong Kong Branch, said some parents of cross-border students worried their children would fall behind when local students returned to school.

Some parents have already felt that online classes lacked effectiveness

Torres Lee, service coordinator, International Social Service Hong Kong Branch

“Some parents have already felt that online classes lacked effectiveness,” Lee said. “Now that local students can return to campus but [cross-border pupils] will be required to stay at home, parents feel a sense of unfairness, as well as having more [pressure] in nurturing their children.”

Jan Kwok, whose 14-year-old son Howard Huang crosses the border for school, said the boy felt disappointed he would not be joining his friends in the classroom. “Our school has not confirmed how [cross-border] pupils will have lessons … it is rather frustrating for [us],” Kwok said.

An ultraviolet light machine disinfects books at the ELCHK Yuen Long Lutheran Secondary School. Photo: Felix Wong

At the ELCHK Yuen Long Lutheran Secondary School, about 20 of 800 students live over the border, including about five at the senior secondary level. Principal Hairo Wan Ho-yin said that apart from giving online lessons, teachers would also provide make-up classes for them on Saturdays.

“Of course we are concerned about their learning progress,” Wan said. “We will be checking on them and if we find they have been lagging behind, relevant adjustments will be made.”

Some 480 local senior students will resume classes on Wednesday. To prepare for their return, the school has spent more than HK$160,000 (US$20,600) on infection-control measures, including nine ultraviolet light disinfection machines placed around the campus to sterilise books, laboratory equipment and other items.

It has added as many as 40 acrylic partitions placed to teachers’ desks and larger tables in common areas.

Under government guidelines, schools must space desks about a metre (3.2 feet) apart and ensure students wear masks during class and avoid gatherings. Tuck shops can remain open but social distancing should be maintained.

Objects frequently touched by students must also be disinfected at least twice a day.

Wan said the school library would operate at half its regular capacity, allowing in no more than 25 students at once. The tuck shop will be closed but students can bring their own snacks to eat during recess.

The start and end of classes for different grades will be staggered so fewer students arrive all at once. If a pupil falls ill or displayed any symptoms, staff will immediately transfer him or her to a designated quarantine area and ask the student’s parents to take them to a doctor.

Separately, a survey found most students reported feeling psychologically healthy despite being stuck at home for months. About 80 per cent of 507 primary and secondary pupils polled by The Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs Association of Hong Kong said they felt emotionally stable, with about 60 of respondents saying they felt “bored” at home and 42 per cent “happy”.

The group urged schools to pay more attention to students’ learning progress after lessons resume, especially for those from lower-income families, to reduce the digital divide they might be facing because their computers were too outdated to allow online learning.

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