Up to a third of Hong Kong’s pupils will be allowed to resume face-to-face classes after the Lunar New Year holiday, but a full resumption will depend on whether schools are willing to get their staff tested regularly for Covid-19.
Currently, just a sixth of a school’s student body can attend lessons in the classroom under restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of the virus. But with the daily caseload falling, the proportion could be increased to a third at all kindergartens, primary and secondary schools, special needs schools and tuition centres, the Education Bureau said on Wednesday. Classes, however, must be limited to half a day.
“We understand that schools and parents very much hope that students can have more time for face-to-face classes so that their learning opportunities will not be deprived and their social, physical and mental developments will not be hindered due to the prolonged fight against the epidemic,” it said.
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To pave the way for the resumption of classes for the whole student body, schools should arrange coronavirus testing for all staff every two weeks, the bureau added, with the first screenings completed at least 14 days beforehand. An application for having all students returning to school must be made to the bureau.
“According to health experts’ opinion, in addition to existing virus-prevention measures, testing is the key to avoiding any transmission, and regular testing of school staff will protect all teachers and students and create a safer environment,” the bureau said.
Face-to-face classes in kindergartens were suspended on November 14 and those at schools were suspended on December 2 due to the fourth wave of the coronavirus. Junior forms in primary schools were suspended on November 23, and senior forms and secondary schools on December 2.
But small groups of pupils, equal to no more than a sixth of the student body, were allowed to return on a half-day basis to attend lessons or take tests starting last month. After the holiday break in the middle of this month, classes are set to resume for most schools on February 22.
Wong Kam-leung, a primary school principal and chairman of the Hong Kong Federation of Education Workers, welcomed the announcement.
“The education sector and parents have been hoping there can be more face-to-face class arrangements if the circumstances allowed,” Wong said. “But we really need to see if the conditions are suitable for students to come back after the Lunar New Year.”
Wong said allowing students back would be beneficial not just for their learning but also the development of their social skills and mental health.
He preferred first allowing one-third of his students back and monitoring the situation, before considering allowing all of the student body to return and arranging for testing of staff.
But the testing prerequisite was questioned by other principals and some teachers, who were unwilling to undergo mandatory screening.
“I have already received feedback from some principals who questioned why the testing rule is not being applied to all schools, but rather the government is passing the burden of making that decision [on whether to bring back all students] onto the individual schools,” said Ip Kin-yuen, vice-president of the Professional Teachers’ Union and a former opposition lawmaker.
Ip said some teachers were willing to undergo testing, but others wanted to know whether a medical basis existed for such a blanket requirement.
“Teachers are not a particularly high-risk group, and there have been relatively few infections among students, so if they want to force teachers [to get tested], there must be a very good reason,” he said.
The city recorded 19 new coronavirus infections on Wednesday, all locally transmitted. However, health authorities warned seven of the cases were untraceable and said the pandemic situation was not yet fully under control.
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