Closures not the only option

Overseas-education | Anjani Trivedi 15 Dec 2020

I recently published a piece titled, My Son's School Has Closed Again. Stop This. I was overwhelmed by the numberswho responded.

Onemothersaid she'd read my column "whilst nodding vigorously!" Anotherwroteabout sending her son to play therapy. A father bemoaned the travails of online learning and the "madness" of it all.

Therewas empathy and sympathy; anger and frustration; hopelessness.

Theymade 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 a change of policies or public thinking around school closures? This isn't an iterative process. It's just a repetitive cycle. Schools are now going intonormal year-end holidays. Then what?

When it comes to taking responsibility for our children's educational future, there's a vacuum.

A solution needsa 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 bythe orders and guidelines they get. Accordingly, they'vecome up with thorough plans to ensure social distancing, hygiene and mask-wearing that, in fact, line up withthe World Health Organization'sguidance andwhat systems elsewherehave done to keep schools open.

The latest shutdown was especiallychaotic.

Some principals got notices to close even before the Education Bureau knew, according to theunion representative. No clear guidance was given on when tothinkabout opening again.Lack of proactive communication made it harder still.

"Conversations with the bureau have been around logistics, rather than pedagogy and well-being," said Kellett School principal Mark Steed.

The bureau saysthat it has maintained "close liaison" with school council heads and representatives to formulate measureswith 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."

Much of the deepening frustration stems frominconsistency in approach and priorities - schools are ordered to close well before riskier venues.Even when classrooms are open, young children sitmasked and distanced in rows,while older people gallivantin intimate settings at bars, restaurants and dance clubs. Some of these are being closed now.

The bureau saidthat in deciding to suspend classes to reduce transmission of communicable diseases, it weighed up an outbreak of upper respiratory tract infections,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 governmenthealth documentsaid thatschool closuresdelay the peak of seasonal flu epidemics and increase their duration. There's little evidence suggesting"an appropriate threshold to trigger school closure."

"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."

True, this coronavirusisn't seasonal flu.But it's unclear if authorities are correctly taking into accountdata and evolving studiessuggesting thatschools aren'tCovid-19hotspots,orhow reopenings are being managed in bigger cities - such as through the means of attendance structure, one-way hallways, bus plans and staggered use of spaces.

Hong Kong seems to have resigned itself to shutteredclassrooms and online learning.

That isn't a long-term solution.

The mainland, Taiwan and Singaporemanaged to open schools and keep it that way. Singapore's Education Ministry hasintroduced aTrace Together Tokento support contact tracing. Schools in various parts of the world useregular testing toensure Covid-free settings and to help track and trace.

One fathersaid:"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.

Conversations about children's vaccines should look toward how to manage the coming year.

US infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci told The New York Times that it will be "an extra added benefit when we get the vaccine for the kids" and that inoculation isn'ta prerequisite for reopening.

The EDB saysthe Covid-19 situationwill "likelycontinue to fluctuate" and that"schools have been reminded to get prepared to adapt to the 'new normal'by switching to different learning modes."

Hong Kong needs a clearly communicated, forward-thinking strategy to break out of this vicious cycle.Proactive plans on testing, andprocuring and distributingvaccines, would help. So would actively working and communicatingwith schools on safely reopening. We've been in this long enough to stop making poor decisions. It's time to adapt.


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