My Kid’s School Is Out. When Will It Reopen?
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- I recently published a piece titled, “My Son’s School Has Closed Again. Stop This.” I was overwhelmed by the numbers – parents including hedge fund managers, bankers, journalists and others – who felt compelled to respond.
Clearly, it struck an emotional chord. One mother said she’d read my column “whilst nodding vigorously!” and that she couldn’t begin to explain how hard her 10-year-old daughter had been hit. Another wrote about sending her son to play therapy. A father bemoaned the travails of online learning and the “madness” of it all. There was empathy and sympathy; anger and frustration; hopelessness. I didn’t have many answers, but several emails and texts choked me up.
They made me wonder, though. We’re almost a year into the Covid-19 pandemic and now in our fourth wave in Hong Kong. Why isn’t this translating into change of policies or public thinking around school closures? Where is the dynamic decision-making, the reopening plan? This isn’t an iterative process. It’s just a repetitive cycle. Schools are now going into normal year-end holidays. Then what?
When it comes to taking responsibility for our children’s educational future, there’s a vacuum. A solution needs a plan and process for the future, where everyone feels safe and learns. “Everyone’s talking about closing all the time; no one’s talking about opening,” a teachers’ union representative told me. They’re “just waiting for instructions.”
Hong Kong’s schools, local and international, have to abide by the orders and guidelines they get. Accordingly, they’ve come up with thorough plans to ensure social distancing, hygiene and wearing masks that, in fact, line up with World Health Organization guidance and what systems elsewhere have done to keep schools open.
The latest shutdown, mandated by the Health Department, was especially chaotic. Some principals got notices to close even before the Education Bureau, or EDB, knew, according to the union representative. No clear guidance was given on when to think about opening again. Lack of proactive communication made it harder still.
“Conversations with the EDB have been around logistics, rather than pedagogy and well-being,” said Mark Steed, principal and chief executive of Kellett School.
The EDB says that it has maintained “close liaison” with school council heads and representatives to formulate measures with students’ safety and health “always of paramount importance.” Suspending and resuming classes is “closely monitored and adjusted from time to time in response to the latest development of the epidemic.”
Here’s the thing: Much of the deepening frustration stems from inconsistency in approach and priorities. Schools are ordered closed well before riskier venues. How is that safer, especially in a pandemic where adults are at greater risk? Even when classrooms are open, young children sit masked and distanced on 1950s-style rowed desks, while older people gallivant in intimate settings at bars, restaurants and dance clubs. Some of these are being closed now.
The bureau said that in deciding to suspend classes to reduce transmission of communicable diseases, it weighed up an outbreak of upper respiratory tract infections (effectively the common cold), the Covid-19 situation in Hong Kong and elsewhere, pressure on public health care, and the personal hygiene of young children.
Now consider this. A 2018 government health document said that school closures delay the peak of seasonal flu epidemics and increase their duration. There’s little evidence suggesting “an appropriate threshold to trigger school closure.” It also noted that a 2008 study conducted after pre-primary and primary institutions were closed when three children died from influenza didn’t find “a substantial effect on community transmission.” The level fell considerably only after secondary schools shut for summer vacation.
“The closure for upper respiratory tract infections was beyond ridiculous,” one reader wrote. “If this is a problem, the education department should mandate flu vaccinations every September and just live with the odd outbreak.”
Before the latest closures, a government adviser told Bloomberg News that the strategy was to keep schools open, after gleaning from epidemiological studies around the world that doing so is “relatively safe.” Shutting kindergarterns was necessary because it’s hard to distinguish cold-like infections from Covid-19 without testing.
True, this coronavirus isn’t seasonal flu. But it’s unclear if authorities are correctly taking into account data and evolving studies suggesting that schools aren’t Covid-19 hotspots, or how reopenings are being managed in bigger cities. Finely calibrated plans are coming out in the U.S. that cover attendance structure, one-way hallways, bus plans, staggered use of spaces. New York’s includes procedures in the event of confirmed cases.
Hong Kong seems to have resigned itself to shuttered classrooms and online learning. That isn’t a long-term solution. China, Taiwan and Singapore managed to open schools and keep it that way. Singapore’s Education Ministry has laid out clear guidelines and introduced a Trace Together Token to support contact tracing. Schools in various parts of the world use regular testing to ensure Covid-free settings, and to help track and trace. In some places, an entire grade goes into homeschooling mode if a student or teacher tests positive.
As one father said to me, “If Hong Kong doesn’t show us that education is a priority, then I’ll have to ask my employer to move me.” Not everyone has that option.
Testing has created a moral dilemma in Hong Kong. An individual testing positive is sent to a public hospital and close contacts, like family members, go to mandatory quarantine centers that are running close to capacity. Parents risk separation from their children – young or old. Having spoken to families and lawyers, I can say that they question submitting to testing if outcomes are so uncertain. It then becomes an ineffective tool to keep schools open.
Conversations about children’s vaccines should look toward how to manage the coming year. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease expert, told the New York Times recently that it will be “an extra added benefit when we get the vaccine for the kids” and that inoculation isn’t a prerequisite for reopening. Hong Kong’s chief excecutive, Carrie Lam, said Friday that deals have been signed for 15 million doses of vaccines made by Sinovac and Pfizer/BioNTech, well after many developed countries reached such agreements.
The EDB says the Covid-19 situation will “likely continue to fluctuate” and that “schools have been reminded to get prepared to adapt to the ‘new normal’ by switching to different learning modes in a flexible manner to sustain students’ learning.”
Hong Kong needs a clearly communicated, forward-thinking strategy to break out of this vicious cycle. Proactive plans on testing, and procuring and distributing vaccines, would help. So would actively working and communicating with schools on safely reopening. We’ve been in this long enough to stop making poor decisions. It’s time to adapt.
Denmark’s guidance, for instance, includes maintaining 6feet of separation between people and holdingsmaller classes and using outside areas for teaching. In Taiwan, students are in homeroom classes with one main teacher; otherteachers move between classes, not the students. Everyone wearsmasks.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Anjani Trivedi is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering industrial companies in Asia. She previously worked for the Wall Street Journal.
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