Hong Kong’s education chief has stressed that regular testing of school staff for Covid-19 will not be a prerequisite for the full resumption of face-to-face classes, saying students’ return to classrooms would instead depend on the overall pandemic situation and feedback from experts.
Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung Yun-hung at a press conference on Thursday morning defended his department’s call for teachers to be tested for the coronavirus every two weeks, but maintained the arrangement was voluntary, saying schools could choose to have their staff screened if they wanted to resume half-day, in-person classes as soon as possible. He also denied that the Education Bureau was putting any undue pressure on schools and teachers.
The bureau on Wednesday had said that up to a third of Hong Kong’s pupils could be allowed to resume half-day, in-person classes after the Lunar New Year holiday, but for a full resumption of classes to take place, schools should arrange for all staff to be tested every two weeks. Lunar New Year falls on February 12.
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But Yeung on Thursday insisted that educators getting regularly tested was not the main condition for restarting face-to-face classes for all students, saying that would instead depend on the development of the health crisis, measures adopted by schools, and feedback from the education sector and health experts.
Yeung added that regular testing was still voluntary at this stage, and that if the coronavirus situation allowed for the full resumption of face-to-face learning, the bureau would “without hesitation do so as soon as possible”.
“In the school set-up, the school management and teachers must have a bigger responsibility than students because they are there to provide … education for the students,” Yeung said.
“We are just allowing those schools whose teachers are very willing to do the testing another option and an opportunity for them to have the full school resume face-to-face lessons at the earliest opportunity.”
Yeung said that it was crucial for the general public to get screened for the coronavirus as much as possible, pointing out that some schools were able to get nearly all their teachers tested when a voluntary screening scheme for education professionals was held last November. Other campuses, he added, had been able to get their faculty tested regularly on a voluntary basis despite school closures.
Some principals and educators, however, have accused the bureau of dodging responsibility for safely bringing students back, deflecting it onto individual schools instead. Schools have been closed since December 2, and only a sixth of a school’s student body can currently attend lessons in the classroom.
Dr Mak Yiu-kwong, the principal of CMA Secondary School in Shek Kip Mei, said the Education Bureau’s stance put schools in a tough spot.
“The measure is like a threat to schools in a way – if teachers don’t get tested, classes can’t be resumed,” he told a radio programme. “This puts schools into a difficult position and many principals are silently angry.”
He added that by the time the bureau had approved schools’ application for class resumption, another round of tests would be due. Mak said he had decided that CMA would initially not resume in-person classes.
Tai Tak-ching, principal of S.K.H. Tang Shiu Kin Secondary School and head of the Wan Chai District Headmasters’ Conference, said on another radio show that he did not see the logic behind the post-Lunar New Year resumption of classes, noting schools were not necessarily safe even if teachers got tested, and that it was not feasible to force them all to be screened.
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