How Will Hong Kong Schools Open For 2020-21?

What will back to school look like in Hong Kong? Here’s everything you need to know about how international schools are reopening for the 2020-21 academic year in the age of Covid-19.
This article is part of an editorial series on Covid-19
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This article is part of an editorial series on Covid-19

After a turbulent 12 months, Hong Kong schools are preparing to reopen their doors for 2020-21. Having started the academic year with a return to distance learning, Hong Kong’s international schools will welcome students back onto campus from September 23 with strict health and safety measures in place.

International schools including Hong Kong International School (HKIS) (pictured above) reopened their campuses in May with everyone wearing masks, desks spaced one metre apart, daily temperature checks, and half day sessions. After a second period of campus closures, they are preparing to reopen again based on guidelines from the Education Bureau.

Internationally, schools are responding to the Covid-19 pandemic using various models of reopening depending on local infection rates. Some schools impose strict social distancing limits between students, while others allow them to mix freely. Some require all staff and students to wear masks, while others make this optional. And some schools are open to every student every day, while others will teach groups of students on alternate days. So, how is Hong Kong bringing children back to school? answers all your questions on how schools will reopen, what to expect for the year ahead, and how Hong Kong compares to other countries.

Read more: Top Tips For Back to School

How Will Schools Reopen?

Social distancing measures in place at Shrewsbury International School, Hong Kong when it temporarily reopened in May 2020

Q: Will all staff and students be tested for Covid-19 ?

A: No, although education secretary Kevin Yeung is encouraging all teachers, students and parents to join Hong Kong's new Universal Community Testing Scheme, which was launched on September 1.

Countries are taking different approaches to testing within schools. In the UK, for example, all schools and colleges will be provided with a small number of home testing kits for children or staff who develop symptoms while on campus; in Abu Dhabi in the UAE, all staff and students will be tested before being allowed into school for the start of term; and in the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend universal testing of all students and staff in K-12 schools. And in Singapore, all local pre-school staff were tested for Covid-19; principals, teachers, cleaners and cooks were among those to be given a one-time swab test paid for by the government. Since June 2, the Ministry of Health has been testing all school staff and older students aged 12 and over with acute respiratory infection (ARI).

Q: Will schools only open for half-day classes?

There will be a phased resumption of face-to-face classes in all local primary and secondary schools, which will open for half-day sessions until further notice to avoid students mixing at lunch breaks. International and special-needs schools will follow a similar schedule but can make their own adjustments; all schools must first submit their class resumption plans to the Education Bureau for approval.

Q: How will social distancing work when schools reopen?

A: Campuses are typically places where students work around shared desks, children play tag in the playground, and young athletes tackle each other on the rugby pitch. Today, however, in Hong Kong’s schools, students are required to keep one metre apart, desks are being spaced one metre apart and must be forward-facing; and there is a one-way system in the corridors to minimise contact. Nothing is the same as before, but throughout the period of distance learning teachers and students have already proved their ability to cope with change.

In a recent survey of teachers in the UK by TES, a hub for the teaching community, 47% said that their biggest concern about going back to school was social distancing. And it’s easy to understand why. While many international schools with large campuses have the advantage of space and larger faculties to facilitate rotating schedules and fitting as many children into a classroom as possible while keeping them 1m apart, they still face the challenges of making major structural changes to their teaching environment.

Every student, every day. Students in all year groups can now return to campus daily, as long as they meet social distancing requirements. Most schools will keep groups of students within their own ‘protective bubble’, to avoid sharing resources and mixing with large groups of children. Timetables have been staggered to ensure that students do not all enter and leave school at the same time, and students are spending the majority of their school day within their home room or one classroom.

There is often no student food service on campus; instead, students should bring their own snacks and lunch from home. Tables in school canteens are limited to small groups of students, with at least one-metre spacing between tables or groups.

In other parts of the world, the social distancing requirement varies between 1m and 2m. We’ve seen images of students in France playing in 'isolated squares' drawn in paint and chalk on the playground, and Chinese pupils wearing one-metre hats to practise social distancing in the classroom. In Denmark, early years students stay in small groups all day, in ‘protective bubbles’ rather than social distancing; micro-groups of children arrive at a separate time, eat their lunch separately, stay in their own zones in the playground and are taught by one teacher.

Q: Will students need to wear a face mask?

A: Yes, all staff and students must wear either a face mask or face shield. As anyone leaving their home is required to wear a mask or face shield, parents must remember to wear one for school drop-off and pick-up.

As schools have opened worldwide, we have seen different approaches to wearing masks. In Taiwan and South Korea, among other countries, schools have fitted plastic barriers on students’ desks to create protective cubicles. In Germany, students are only required to wear masks in common areas. And in New Zealand, Denmark and Sweden, masks for students are not required at all.

Q: What should my child bring to school?

A: Students are advised to bring in their own water bottles to school, a mask (and a spare), and a pencil case filled with stationery to avoid needing to borrow equipment from their teachers or peers.

Q: Can schools teach PE and extra-curricular activities?

A: Schools are allowed to run group activities and small-sided games that involve minimal physical contact, such as badminton, table-tennis, volleyball, sepak takraw, with a limit of five students per group and safety measures. Large group activities and contact sports are not allowed; if masks are not worn, students must stay 1.5 m apart.

Q: Will field trips and assemblies still go ahead?

A: Many aspects of school that make it sociable and fun have been stripped back – the school assemblies, end of year plays, sports days, music events, and awards ceremonies. All school excursions and trips, including competitive sports with other schools, are currently cancelled until further notice.

The Education Bureau says that schools should "avoid non-essential gathering of students and consider using public announcement systems to replace assemblies. Schools should also reduce extra-curricular activities within and beyond the campuses in order to reduce the risk of infection."

Governments worldwide are being steered by guidelines – The Framework for Reopening Schools – for the safe reopening of schools issued by UNESCO, UNICEF, WFP and World Bank. This framework includes prohibiting activities that require large gatherings, which is advice that is being widely followed.

Q: How should students travel to and from school?

A: If your child is travelling to school on public transport, they must wear a mask - face shields are not allowed. Safe distancing should be observed. All commuters are expected to stand on the green stickers placed on buses and trains, and it is not allowed to sit on seats labelled with orange stickers.

If driving, many schools are asking all parents to drop their children at ‘kiss and go’ zones rather than escorting them onto campus and into class.

Worldwide, parents have been barred from entering school grounds, and told to wave goodbye to their children at the gate; in New Zealand, for example, parents remained at the school gate when their children returned to the classroom in May.

Q: Will my child need to have daily temperature checks?

A: All students must have a daily temperature check; students can only attend school if their temperature is below 37.6C/99.7F. Parents and helpers collecting their children must also have temperature checks taken before entering school grounds. Some schools have thermal cameras at the school gate to monitor temperature.

Children worldwide are starting their school day with a temperature check, which is widely considered a key tool in keeping on top of the Covid-19 pandemic as a fever is one of the early signs of the virus. Adding this new procedure to the school day may slow down children coming into school, but it could prove vital.

Q: What other health and safety precautions must be followed by schools?

A: At all schools, students are required to submit a health and travel declaration form before term starts.

Once on campus, students should not share stationery, there are hand sanitisers across campuses, and school premises are being regularly cleaned and disinfected. Water fountains will be switched off as a possible source of contamination, and students must bring their own water bottles to school; the number of students using the toilets at any one time is strictly regulated.

It is universally acknowledged that schools need to be disinfected every day, there should be hand sanitisers around campuses, and students are encouraged to wash their hands frequently.

What To Expect For 2020-21

The new layout of classrooms at Mount Kelly School, Hong Kong

Q: Does my child have to attend school?

A: Parents are free to decide whether their child will attend an international school; however, there is no guarantee that all schools will continue to provide distance learning once campuses reopen. Some schools in Hong Kong are providing both online (for a short period of time) and at-school learning, to cater for students who may be delayed returning to school due to quarantine and travel restrictions. 

Globally, it is more than likely to be mandatory for children attending local, government-run schools to return to campus. In the UK, for example, children must return to school once they reopen and the UK government has said that, “For the vast majority of children, the benefits of being back in school far outweigh the very low risk from coronavirus (COVID-19). And, even if private and international schools do offer the option of distance learning, this will only be a short-term solution.

Q: What happens if my child cannot attend school?

While the majority of students are able to be physically present on campus, others may not. Some schools may offer students a distance learning option.

While in most countries worldwide, students will not have the option to continue with online learning once schools reopen, there are some exceptions. In the UAE, for example, Dubai’s Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) has requested all private schools to offer 100% distance learning provision for the new academic year to parents who request it. This will be temporary measure “intended to help ease parents and children into an eventual return to face-to-face learning”.

Q: What happens if there is a case of Covid-19 at my school?

A: Hong Kong’s Centre for Health Protection has advised schools to immediately suspend face-to-face teaching for one to two days while awaiting official confirmation in the event any staff or students preliminarily test positive for Covid-19; the school would then be closed for 14 days if a case of Covid-19 is confirmed.

In Singapore, the Ministry of Education will "ring-fence" students and teachers and put them on Leave of Absence when there are Covid-19 cases in a school. Rather than fully closing a school, education minister Ong Ye Kung has said that the MOE will quarantine and put students and teachers on Leave of Absence in “as small (a) scale as possible”.
This is the approach being taken by governments worldwide. In the UK, for example, “small groups” of students and staff members will self-isolate for up to 14 days if there is a confirmed case of coronavirus in the school; the Department of Education says that “where there are two or more confirmed cases in a two-week period, health protection teams may ask a large number of other children or young people to self-isolate at home as a precautionary measure”.

Q: Will all schools be closed again if the number of Covid-19 cases continues to rise in Hong Kong?

A: There is always a possibility that schools could be closed again.

Elsewhere in the world we have seen countries having to close their schools again or extend closures due to a second or third wave of Covid-19 cases. Oman has yet to announce an official date for the reopening of its public, private and international schools, and schools in Kenya will not reopen until January 2020.

Q: Will the IB Diploma Programme exams still go ahead in November?

A: At this time, the November 2020 exams are scheduled to take place as planned. But this could change if school closures become widespread again due to new waves of Covid-19.

The International Baccalaureate Organisation (IBO) says:

“However, as circumstances around the globe shift daily, we continue to monitor the situation closely. In the event that the exam session cannot take place, the IB will use procedures to ensure students can be assessed and awarded either the Diploma, Career-related Programme certificate or course results which reflect their standard of work.”

Q: Are schools open for tours and open days?

A: Prospective parents and visitors can only visit campuses out of school hours and an appointment must always be made; many schools are still offering virtual tours as well.

Will your child be starting a new school in August? How do you feel about the return to school for the new academic year? 
We’d love to hear your thoughts - email us on [email protected] or comment below…

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