Hong Kong’s education minister has appealed to staff, students and parents to get tested for the coronavirus under the government’s citywide screening scheme to build confidence as tens of thousands of student prepare to return to classrooms for the first time in months.
Physical classes resume in late September for half days, but Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung Yun-hung said a date had not yet been set for them to resume on a full-day basis, or for the city’s 27,000 cross-border pupils to head back to campus, despite the improving Covid-19 situation locally.
His plea on Saturday for the school community to engage in testing came a day after he met lawmakers from the pro-government Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, who expressed concern over some principals and staff rejecting the free, voluntary screening programme.
Last week, reports emerged that some principals and teachers preferred to be tested at private clinics due to mistrust of the government.
“This is for the interests of society,” Yeung told a radio show, referring to fears the return to physical classes could trigger a rise in cases. “If staff, students, parents join the testing, it would boost confidence for school resumption. But we will not make it compulsory.”
The city will enter the first phase of resuming face-to-face classes for half days from September 23, starting with Form One, Form Five and Form Six, those same years at primary level, as well as final-year kindergarten children. The remaining age groups will resume in-person lessons from September 29.
Yeung said he did not have the figures for the number of school staff registering for the Beijing-backed testing scheme, which launched on Tuesday. Whether there should be regular testing for the education sector in the future depended on how the profession responded to the current round, he said.
More than 1 million residents have registered for the scheme, which has uncovered 10 infections so far.
The Education Bureau updated Covid-19 guidelines for schools on Friday but school resumption arrangements for some 27,000 cross-border students – those living in mainland China but educated in Hong Kong – were not mentioned.
Yeung admitted he had no timetable for their return as long as travel restrictions remained in place without quarantine exemptions. He said maximum capacity for point-to-point transport via school buses remained at 2,000 students per day.
“It would be extremely difficult to transport more than 20,000 students across the border every day. School bus routing problems are already a huge headache,” he said, adding his colleagues were now focusing their efforts on supporting those pupils with virtual learning.
The minister also said it was too early to predict when full-day learning in schools would resume, saying authorities must consider social-distancing measures for restaurants and the city’s pandemic situation as a whole before deciding.
Yeung also repeated his defence of the bureau’s removal of the phrase “separation of powers” from chapters of liberal studies textbooks about the city’s governance, a move critics said disrespected the judiciary.
Yeung said the vetting scheme was in place to “remove ambiguities” in teaching materials that could lead to wrong interpretations.
He said previous remarks from top judges about the concept were merely statements of particular viewpoint, but descriptions in textbooks should be concise and in line with the reasons for establishing the subject.
“Our considerations were whether the subject has been used to advocate certain ideas,” he said. “Did [the descriptions] deviate from the original purpose of equipping students’ with an ability to analyse issues objectively as a whole?”
Writing on a blog post on Saturday, Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah weighed in and said people should understand the city’s political structure from the constitutional order, instead of focusing on the conceptual meaning of “separation of powers”.
“The executive authorities, the legislature and the judiciary perform their functions under the executive-led system in accordance with the Basic Law, and complement each other to uphold national and territorial integrity, and ensure prosperity and stability of Hong Kong,” she said.
Liberal studies was introduced in 2009 as a compulsory subject for senior secondary pupils to strengthen their critical thinking. The phrase “separation of powers” was deleted from the module about contemporary Hong Kong by at least two publishers.
But the Education Bureau has published online a 2011 seminar in which Patrick Chan Siu-oi, then a permanent judge of the Court of Final Appeal, talked of the principle as a means of avoiding abuse in governance.
In 2014, Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li said that the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, “sets out clearly the principle of the separation of powers between the legislature, the executive and the judiciary”.
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