Hong Kong kindergartens to close after 179 outbreaks of common cold recorded in city schools

Victor Ting
·4-min read

Hong Kong kindergartens will close for two weeks from Saturday due to 179 outbreaks of upper respiratory tract infections affecting nearly 2,000 pupils and staff, the government has confirmed.

Fearing a combined onslaught of Covid-19 and other respiratory illnesses this winter, Secretary for Food and Health Professor Sophia Chan Siu-chee on Thursday said the shutdown was necessary to minimise the impact of another potential coronavirus surge, with 23 new cases confirmed in the afternoon.

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“There is a wide outbreak of upper respiratory tract infections. Even though we have not found Covid-19 in those infected teachers and students, we are still very concerned about the situation,” she said, explaining the new approach this year to respiratory illnesses such as the common cold.

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“Because unfortunately, once there are students who have caught [Covid-19] in kindergartens or childcare centres, there will be a high chance of spread to other pupils, teachers and their families, leading to an extensive outbreak.”

Of the respiratory outbreaks logged in Hong Kong, which mostly involve the common cold, 104 are in kindergartens.

An outbreak of this type is declared in a school when more than three children in a class are recorded as having any infectious disease of the upper respiratory tract, which tend to have similar symptoms to Covid-19.

Chan said face-to-face lessons would be suspended for 14 days in kindergartens and childcare centres, with the government keeping a close eye on the situation in primary schools.

She said the decision was made after considering the pressures facing the health care system amid the Covid-19 crisis and winter flu season, and the difficulties in getting children to comply with hygiene measures.

“We will try to keep it at two weeks, but then if the situation is getting worse ... we will not rule out the possibility of extending the suspension.”

Health minister Sophia Chan. Photo: Dickson Lee
Health minister Sophia Chan. Photo: Dickson Lee

Chan also urged parents to reduce children’s extracurricular activities and avoid taking them to crowded places.

A government source earlier described the preschool closures as a precautionary Covid-19 epidemic control measure.

Dr Wong Ka-hing, controller of the Centre for Health Protection, added that so far this influenza season, as of November 8, one in four children between the ages of six months and six years had received flu vaccinations, a similar rate to the same period last year.

But that figure might have been affected by the school closures, Wong added as he urged parents to vaccinate their children at private clinics.

There are more than 1,000 kindergartens in Hong Kong, with 170,000 children on their books.

Chan did not elaborate on why the kindergartens would only close from Saturday rather than immediately.

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Eiffel Chau King-lun, from the Hong Kong Parents League for Education Renovation, said families were concerned about the impact of kindergarten closures, coming less than two months after the late-September return of face-to-face lessons in schools.

“It’s very hard for parents to request to work from home and help their children with online learning,” he said. “Kindergarten students are very young and don’t know how to log into platforms like Zoom by themselves.”

Chau added that the government needed to be more transparent about the decision-making process for suspending face-to-face teaching.

Ivy Leung Sau-ting, kindergarten principal and member of the Hong Kong Professional Teachers‘ Union executive committee, said the Department of Health had taken a stricter approach to infection control due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“In the past, there would have to be a huge outbreak at a school before it would be shut ... but because the symptoms are quite similar to Covid-19, it‘s understandable that authorities don’t want to lower their guard,” she said.

“Closing kindergartens for two weeks will not have a big impact on pupils’ progression. Hopefully we can safely tide over the next two weeks so the children can return to school and catch up as much as possible. We don’t want to add more stress on parents.”

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