Coronavirus: ‘little, if any, possibility’ Hong Kong schools resume fully on April 20, Lam says

Tony Cheung

There is now little to no possibility that Hong Kong’s schools will fully reopen on April 20, the city’s chief executive said on Tuesday, as the government continues to step up measures to contain a surge in imported coronavirus infections

Speaking at her weekly media briefing, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said that while classes could only resume in stages, the government was actively trying to boost the supply of children’s masks by asking the Correctional Services Department for help.

Lam’s attempt to manage parents’ expectations came alongside her morning announcement that all travellers from foreign countries arriving in Hong Kong from Thursday would undergo mandatory quarantine. The move was seen as an attempt to combat a rise in imported infections, which account for about half of the city’s confirmed cases.

About 900,000 kindergarten, primary and secondary students have been out of school since February 3, with April 20 targeted as a tentative date for resumption of classes.

Last week, teachers and principals suggested schools begin reopening in stages from that date, though Professor David Hui Shu-cheong, a medical expert advising Lam, said schools should reopen only if no locally transmitted coronavirus infections had been recorded for four weeks.

“In terms of class resumption, we will be very cautious. It seems that there’s little, if any, possibility that schools can completely resume on April 20,” Lam said at Tuesday’s briefing.

“Even if the situation stabilises, we can only do that in stages.”

Secondary and primary school principals the Post spoke to said they expected the Education Bureau to make a determination on the continued suspension of classes by the end of March.

Tai Tak-ching, principal of SKH Tang Shiu Kin Secondary School, said he believed schools should open in phases, but not before May, allowing those taking their Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE) exams to sit the test first.

The exams, which begin on March 27, will see some 52,000 candidates attend exam centres at more than 300 secondary schools around Hong Kong.

“Schools should resume after DSE candidates have taken all their written exams in early May, so that secondary school students returning to class won’t have to be on the same campus at the same time with DSE candidates,” Tai said. “The [large] quantity of people at school could be rather difficult to manage.”

Cheung Yung-pong, honorary chairman of the Aided Primary School Heads Association, also called for an incremental return, saying secondary school students should begin classes first, followed by primary school students, then kindergarteners.

“[Schools] are prepared for different scenarios, say if classes would resume in mid or late May, or even in June,” said Cheung, adding that while many parents hoped school would resume soon, some were still worried about potential health risks.

For Iris Hui, the resumption of classes cannot come soon enough.

Hui, who has a seven-year-old daughter, said Lam’s Tuesday announcement was like a “death sentence” to parents who hoped their children would soon be back at school.

“I did not expect schools to fully resume on April 20, but now we do not even need to think about it,” she said. “My daughter … has been very bored. There is nothing left for her to play with at home.”

Hong Kong students have been out of school since February 3. Photo: Dickson Lee

Hui added that if classes were to remain suspended, the Education Bureau should consider suspending online learning as well, saying she was unconvinced it was an effective teaching tool and that it had proved a “burden for a lot of parents”.

Another mother, who shares a subdivided flat and single smartphone with her nine-year-old son in Sai Ying Pun, said his online learning had been seriously disrupted, particularly as they had no internet connection.

“Occasionally, he goes to McDonald’s or heads to the church to borrow the Wi-fi connection to catch up with his homework,” said the 42-year-old, who asked to be identified by her surname, Chan.

And while she said she understood it was best to resume classes when health risks had lowered, she feared letting her child stay home was hampering his education.

Meanwhile, mask procurement for students remains difficult, Lam said at Tuesday’s briefing, saying various government departments had been stepping in to help.

“The Correctional Services Department is modifying one of its semi-automated production lines to specialise in children’s mask production. It will also adopt new machines or parts to produce the masks,” she said.

“The Government Logistics Department has also procured a batch of children’s masks that we are willing to share with schools … and the Education Bureau has been asking manufacturers in mainland China to increase their supply of [children’s] masks.”

So Ping-fai, adviser to the Subsidised Primary School Council, welcomed word of increased mask production, but noted schools still needed to work continuously to source the protective gear.

“There could be up to 50 to 60 days in between class resumption and summer break, so each student would need roughly … one box of 50 masks each,” he said.

The dearth of supply was further underscored by a new survey released by the pro-government Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong.

The survey, which interviewed 567 Hong Kong parents, found 30 per cent of respondents had fewer than 10 masks for their children under 12 years of age, while 10 per cent had none at all.

Nearly half, meanwhile, said their children were forced to wear masks intended for adults, while one in 10 expressed reluctance to let their children go back to school unless masks were provided to them.

Separately, CareHK, a company headed by business sector lawmaker Jeffrey Lam Kin-fung and Federation of Hong Kong Industries chairman Jimmy Kwok Chun-wah, on Tuesday said it would begin manufacturing 500,000 surgical masks a day by next month.

The company, which Lam told reporters already had two functioning production lines, will sell its masks via an online platform for HK$1.95 each.

Lam also pledged the price will not rise for at least a month, while 200,000 masks per month would be donated to “those in need”.

Lam said the factory in Tai Po, converted from a vertical farm, will be equipped with five production lines by April, including two that will produce child-sized masks.

Additional reporting by Sum Lok-kei

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