Local and international schools in Hong Kong have been closed for eight weeks. Students spent the majority of Term 2 using distance learning, and they look set to complete the rest of this academic year doing the same. It’s been a learning journey where schools have responded and adjusted to make online education more focused on wellbeing and community; and they have become more innovative and creative to bring sports days, house competitions and library sessions into the student’s living room.
Where Hong Kong’s international schools stand firm, though, is on fees. There are no waivers or discounts on annual tuition fees as we’ve seen in countries such as Singapore and the UAE. However, 2020-21 tuition fees have been frozen at all English School Foundation (ESF) schools, and some other international schools including Wycombe Abbey and Mount Kelly.
Just as Covid-19 is a universal problem, distance learning is a shared experience where schools in different countries can learn from each other, perhaps more than they normally would. While Hong Kong may not be a pioneer in online learning, it can share the experience of doing it for the longest time. So, as Hong Kong’s international schools prepare to ‘virtually’ reopen for Term 3, what can we learn from them?
Rain Jones, head of schools and governor at Mount Kelly School Hong Kong, encourages schools to fully prepare staff and students for an unfamiliar way of learning.
Jones said: “I would say initially a lot of guidance is needed to make it effective and successful. Teachers need more CPD (continuous professional development) on how to deal with specific aspects of live teaching, and the children need to be better prepared on how to use technology more effectively.”
Kellett School urges school to focus on student wellbeing.
“Although we’re relieved to say we prioritised it from the outset, our top advice would be not to underestimate the wellbeing needs of the community during this period – be sure to embed it in your home learning and parental communications from the outset.”
Malvern College Hong Kong agrees by advising schools to “build in activities/days which will focus on community spirit and wellbeing and provide a change of routine e.g. wellbeing days, house competitions, etc.”. And, in terms of academics, the school says there is a need to “Adopt a ‘Quality Over Quantity’ approach to home learning. Due to the increased intensity of home learning, we recommend designing bite-sized learning units.”
Wycombe Abbey School Hong Kong’s recommendation is to start early: “Our advice would be that starting as soon as possible is the best policy. Incorporating technology into learning is so important for pupils today.”
While the focus on the first few weeks was on how to deliver academic content online, teachers are now shifting attention towards building non-academic and extra-curricular activities into the virtual school day.
Hong Kong’s schools have listened to feedback from staff meetings, used the results of parent and student surveys, and monitored children’s engagement and progress to bring students together and boost wellbeing. As a result, we’re seeing ‘virtual’ whole-school events, house challenges and class activities that have always been a standard addition to the daily academic timetable. As Mount Kelly says, it is “trying to make it as similar as possible to what a normal school day would look like”.
Kellett School says: “With schools closed since the end of January our staff have had to get very creative indeed to keep our students engaged and motivated.
"We have had a book day, science day with videos of staff experiments and experiments to do at home. We have had sports challenges and competitions ranging from daily step counts to Geocaching, and we have had a live-streamed gig with a mix of staff and students performing.”
Malvern College says:
“Going into the Summer Term, our focus is on ensuring balance and variety. There will be routine days with continuation of face to face check-ins, flipped learning activities and video lessons, mixed up with more days where the focus is on wellbeing and connecting the school community – through wellness days, house events and the celebration of book week, to name a few.”
And Mount Kelly lists its recent initiatives, saying: “We’re also now offering one to one reading, EAL sessions, check ins and check outs, feedback sessions, counselling wellbeing sessions, live spelling tests, live assemblies, Easter tea parties, cooking classes and sports challenges.”
As Hong Kong schools have found after several weeks of distance learning, it can be important to ‘shake-up’ the daily cycle as the extraordinary becomes the ordinary.
For example, in response to student surveys, Kellett School has revised its senior school timetable to “bring all live lessons to the morning, allowing for a fairly screen-free afternoon for students.” This leaves the afternoons free for less-structured lessons and activities such as PE, tutorials and house activities and so on to the afternoons.
In Kellett’s prep schools, teachers are hosting events such as book and science days every Friday to break up the routine.
One of the many challenges has been to bring the school library into students' homes. More than just books and computers, school libraries play a critical role in encouraging reading for pleasure and developing literacy. And it's been interesting to see how librarians are taking a very active role in the new online timetable, as Malvern College explains:
“The librarian has kept busy reading and building up a video bank of book readings for children to enjoy. Book week is planned for the first day of term with a range of exciting online activities, including a character parade, Drop Everything and Read, as well as the Extreme Reading photo challenge.”
At Hong Kong Academy (HKA), primary school students were invited to wear pyjamas and drink cocoa as they joined Google Meet to listen to part of an eight-hour readathon; at Stamford American School (SAS), Hong Kong, librarians have hosted online storytelling sessions in English and Mandarin; and Mount Kelly has its own library bus that tours Hong Kong.
Wycombe Abbey adds:
“We have also been offering a library service where our librarian will pack sanitised books from our library which are then delivered to various locations in Hong Kong for parents to pick up. In addition to this initiative to help reduce screen time for our pupils, our headmaster, Howard Tuckett, has been recording audio books for our pupils to enjoy with closed eyes.”
The isolation of online learning becomes more apparent as the weeks pass, and there have been many creative attempts at running house activities to help build community spirit.
For example, Nord Anglia is running a House STEAM Challenge to build the best castle (and entries using everything from Lego to cardboard boxes); Malvern College is hosting a house day for secondary students involving a series of challenges including debating, poetry recital, Chinese culture and maths competitions; and Shrewsbury International School is challenging students to build the best bridge to hold a hard-boiled egg.
Student trips may be cancelled but alternatives are being found; for example, Stamford American School (SAS), Hong Kong's Grade 4 students attended a virtual overnight camp and built their own indoor forts using items from around their home.
Events are also still on the calendar; SAS Hong Kong recently celebrated a virtual International Week by inviting students to share recipes for their favourite dish from their home country, which will be printed in the Stamford Recipe Book. Elsewhere, at Malvern College, students are currently collaborating on projects to promote and celebrate Earth Day on April 22. And, the French International School of Hong Kong is inviting students to send in their pictures of home learning for that all-important annual yearbook.
A one-to-one counselling session at Mount Kelly School
Extended school closures have highlighted the importance of school not just as a centre of learning, but as a place where students can socialise and be cared for. Technology may be able to deliver a lesson on fractions or adverbials, but to what extent can it manage student wellbeing from afar?
One of the most noticeable developments in distance learning within Hong Kong’s schools has been a greater focus on wellbeing. We’re seeing schools introduce booster breaks where students can recharge physically, mentally or emotionally, Google Meets with counsellors, and online snack time to bring children ‘together’.
School blogs are filled with guidance on supporting wellbeing during school closures, and there is more support for parents through online support seminars, blog posts, podcasts and e-book articles. For example, the English Schools Foundation (ESF) has launched a Teacher Talks’ series, “where we invite our teachers to give their two cents on delivering learning online and facing down every challenge along the way".
Schools such as Mount Kelly try to offer the same level of pastoral care by offering online counselling sessions, “as we are aware that during this time, they may struggle with anxious thoughts or feelings.” And Malvern College has launched Spirit Friday to focus on generating a feeling of community spirit, as well as celebrating other wellbeing days.
“For example, in March, all secondary pupils were off timetable for a day and engaged in an exciting programme of sessions looking at wellbeing, including yoga, nutrition, fitness, mindfulness, starting and finishing with tutor group check-ins.”
Kellett School has run a student wellbeing poll to identify children who need additional support; all senior students have a daily check in with their tutor; and all prep students attend three weekly Zoom sessions focused on wellbeing rather than the curriculum. It has also launched a Kellett Student Wellbeing website featuring tips and resources for self-care.
Teachers at Wycombe Abbey are available on Microsoft Teams during school hours, and students are encouraged to send them instant messages if needed. The school is also moving the focus of its staff inset training day at the start of next term “on the theme of practical well-being support for pupils through the iLearning Platform.”
As well as using apps such as Google Classroom and Zoom to host live lessons, schools are becoming more creative and adventurous in their use of technology.
Schools are using it to bring global experts into the home; for example, Nord Anglia International School hosted a live chat between its teachers and NASA scientist Kimberly Arcand to answer students’ questions. It’s also being used to connect schools across different campuses; students at Yew Cheung International School, Hong Kong, for example, worked with other Yew Cheung schools to produce ‘Live On, “a song which beautifully demonstrates that distance does not mean separation and isolation”.
Nord Anglia is also one of the first schools in Hong Kong to introduce Century Tech, an AI education platform from the UK that creates tasks for students based on their age and ability. And Shrewsbury International School and Harrow International School are among those who have been experimenting with augmented reality to bring penguins into the library and dinosaurs into school corridors, a creative way to help with student learning.
We’re also seeing virtual parent teacher conferences, virtual assemblies, and virtual student assessments for admissions. As Year 6 and Year 12 student head towards the end of their primary or secondary education, could virtual balls and graduations be the next step?
It’s not all about moving forwards in terms of technology, though. Some schools have been providing students with resources to support their home learning. Shrewsbury has created Busy Bags filled with art materials for its early years students, and Nord Anglia has been supplying families with Curiosity Cubes filled with “crafting supplies and games that encourage curious questions”.
There has been time for Hong Kong to adapt to delivering the more specialist subjects, which can be more challenging to teach online. For example, Hong Kong Academy (HKA) has allocated Tuesdays as specialist subject days, when students and focus solely on art, ICT, library, music and PE, “to encourage them to stay active and creative through online learning”.
At HKA, there have been virtual sports days where students take part in various active challenges to earn house points, and students have sent in audition videos for a virtual performing arts festival. And Wycombe Abbey is using Microsoft Flipgrid, Stream and video chats to conduct interactive PE, music, iSTEAM, art and drama classes.
“Pupils are sent interesting and engaging tasks to do at home and are encouraged to share their video with their class. This form of interaction helps create an interactive learning environment for our pupils and they feel well connected with their class and classmates.”