Covid-19: How Well Are Hong Kong Schools Coping?

As Hong Kong’s international schools enter their sixth week of mandatory closures, we look at how online learning is being used to educate students, the cost of closing schools for at least 12 weeks, and how students are coping with the pressure of exams. There are lessons for schools around the world...
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

What is the cost of school closures to parents and schools?


Annual tuition fees at Hong Kong’s international schools range from HKD 90,000 to 200,000. So with parents feeling as if they are home-schooling their children for at least 12 weeks, the question is who should bear the financial brunt of this disruption?

The feeling of disgruntlement amongst parents is understandable: as well as paying tuition for an entire term that has been taught remotely, parents have already paid for services such as school transport and after-school activities.

From the schools’ point of view, however, they are still paying full salaries to teachers who are delivering daily online learning and attending staff meetings, and paying full rents to the government for campuses that cannot be accessed. The schools may be closed but learning has not stopped. And in the private education sector, that cannot be free.

The EDB is awarding a total of HKD 42 million to around 2,200 local and international schools in Hong Kong to "help them replenish their epidemic prevention equipment (such as masks, thermometers, etc) or clean their school premises and pay for other expenses related to epidemic prevention." Each international school will receive a grant of HKD $20,000, which does nothing to compensate them for the huge financial repercussions of the Coronavirus.

There are signs of growing discontent within the international school sector. As reported in The Pie News, the French and British Chambers have sent letters to the Hong Kong government describing “dramatic consequences” for international schools and their financial position.

“If the specific needs of international schools cannot be rapidly addressed, this will very likely trigger decisions of families (not just expatriates) to leave Hong Kong in the coming weeks,” wrote the chairmen of the two Chambers, Rebeca Silli (France) and Peter Burnett (British).

It’s around this time of year when schools ask parents to indicate whether they will be returning for the following academic year, and when bills for Term 3 tuition are sent out. Will there be an exodus of families from Hong Kong from Easter? And what will be the consequences for schools if Term 3 payments do not come flooding in?

Most school tours have been suspended since the end of the January, so this is bound to affect the intake of new parents for 2020-21 as they are relying on visits to virtual tours on their websites.

Once again, schools are thinking out of the box to manage the situation; for example, Yew Chung International School and the ESF are offering online information sessions to prospective parents; Shrewsbury International School, Nord Anglia International School and the new Invictus School Hong Kong are among those running individual tours “with necessary hygiene precautions in place”; and Malvern College Hong Kong is hosting an admissions event off-campus.

Yew Chung International School has launched online information sessions to prospective parents

It’s normally at the end of March when the English Schools Foundation (ESF) announces the increase in its annual tuition fees, and this has been around 4.5% for the past two academic years. And last year Hong Kong’s Education Bureau approved tuition fee increases at 64 international schools for 2019/20. Surely, schools can't afford to increase their fees for 2020-21, but can they afford not to?

There are two new schools opening in Hong Kong this year in less than ideal circumstances. Invictus International School and Kent College Hong Kong are both due to open in August 2020 for the start of a new academic year, which can only be more settled than the existing one.

Will they be able to fill places in their founding year though? We are already seeing some international schools react to the ongoing situation by offering discounted application fees. For example, Mount Kelly College, Hong Kong is waiving its application fee of HKD 1,500 for K1 to Year 2 until March 20.

Mark Steed Kellett
Kellett School principal Mark Steed is offering all schools advice based on his experience in Hong Kong

In a post on LinkedIn to schools worldwide, Kellett School’s CEO and principal, Mark Steed, said:

“Bills are never popular and this is all the more the case where there is a perception that they are being charged for a service which they are not receiving. In addition, schools are likely to be faced with requests for refunds on any extra-curricular activity (ECAs) fees, bus fees, and charges for instrumental music lessons.
“Most schools operate with limited cash reserves (usually about three months/ a term's fees). Schools therefore should make preparations for late or non-payment, demands for fee reductions, children being withdrawn from the school at no notice, and the cost of a proportion of associated legal disputes. Whilst robust parent-school contracts might mean that these issues are likely to be resolved in the school’s favour in time, short-term non-payment does pose a significant problem for schools.”

He adds:

 “From a parental perspective, schools fulfil three functions: first, teaching and learning – the preparation for examinations and university entry; secondly, easy access to an extra-curricular programme; and, thirdly, childcare. When schools are closed for long periods of time, as necessitated by the Covid-19 virus, schools are only able to fulfil the first of these functions.

“In the medium term, schools will need to decide if they are going to offer a discount or a fee freeze in order to appease or retain parents. This is likely to vary between schools and context, depending on future demand for places at the school.”

Next page: How are students taking IGCSEs, A Levels and the IBDP affected?

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