After nearly four months of class suspension due to the pandemic, senior secondary students went back to school from Wednesday, with lower forms to follow on June 8 and 22.
But on the first day back for schools, around 2,500 cross-border students were stuck in the mainland as authorities on both sides have yet to settle on an arrangement to exempt them from the compulsory 14-day quarantine.
The education sector also said several other issues regarding the resumption of classes need to be solved urgently, including traffic arrangements and the Hong Kong re-entry permit.
According to the education bureau's initial implementation plan, cross-border students will take school buses to commute between schools and boundary control points upon arrival in Hong Kong to avoid unnecessary social contact.
However, secondary school students could struggle to use cross-border school buses, as many are designed for kindergartens and primary schools.
Alan Chan, the managing director of Chinalink Express, said the company has yet to receive queries from the Hong Kong government.
Chan also pointed out another issue: that temperature checks should be arranged on cross-border school buses, which will require at least two to three staff per vehicle. "But if the government does not provide details as soon as possible, it will be difficult for the industry to arrange staff," he said.
The education bureau has suggested schools continue to conduct online teaching for those who still can't attend classes physically, despite a survey in February indicating that more than half of cross-border families think that it is unreasonable for classes to resume without cross-border students.
According to the International Social Service Hong Kong Branch survey, parents think that their children would lag behind other students in terms of learning progress with just online teaching.
Another survey from the non-government organization saw nearly half of the 5,000 parents surveyed answer they were worried about longer school commutes due to some border crossings being closed.
The government's plan states that cross-border students can travel via Shenzhen Bay Port or Futian/Lok Ma Chau Spur Line Port from Monday to Friday to go to and from school, which will be open only for cross-border students to go through immigration checks.
Chu Wai-lam, the vice-chairman of the New Territories School Heads Association, pointed out that the Futian/Lok Ma Chau Spur Line Ports is inconvenient for students studying in Tuen Mun and Yuen Long. He urged the authorities to open more crossings, such as the Lo Wu and Man Kam To border points.
But even if more crossings are opened and traffic arrangements were implemented, he also voiced worries about students with overdue reentry permits not being able to return to class. Chu said that among more than 1,000 primary five students in Northern district, where most students from the mainland attend school, over 900 have expired documents.
He urged the governments on both sides to make special arrangements to renew the invalid reentry permits for students.
Chu also estimated that students would go back to school at least one week later than planned, which will probably, once again, extend the deadline for secondary school place allocation.
The SSPA allows the education bureau to determine the placement of students in the secondary school based on three examinations taken during primary five and six.
"If students fail to resume classes on time, it will be difficult to take the exams during this school year, and even if schools start earlier in mid-August, the exam will take place about four weeks afterward," Chu said.
He also expressed concerns classes might be suspended again due to the return of social unrest, followed by the Legislative Council election in September.
At the same time, local students who remain in the mainland are not on the exemption list.
A transfer student who studied in the mainland before this school year, Yoyo Tang, lives in the SAR and is enrolled at a local secondary school in Kowloon Tong. Having stayed in the mainland since the Lunar New Year, the secondary two student planned to return to Hong Kong after June 7, the day the two-week quarantine requirement for arrivals was set to expire, and return to school on June 8.
But Tang didn't realize she wasn't classified as a cross-border student and failed to return to Hong Kong by the deadline for resuming school on time.
She said the school has no cross-border students, but does have four other students like her, and is sure the school will not conduct online classes for those who study in different years after the resumption.
"The government did not give precise guidelines for students like us, nor did it give parents and students enough time to prepare," said Gigi Zhu, Tang's mother, who criticized the government as "rigid" and "inefficient."
"If my daughter still needs to undergo 14-day quarantine after June 7, I think I will let her stay in the mainland. The school year is ending soon anyway."