This is not the first time that Hong Kong faces a coronavirus attack. The bitter experience of SARS in 2003 which cost 299 lives (including eight medical staff) was horrible and unforgettable. That was the reason why HK citizens responded so quickly to the outbreak of a similar coronavirus and the emergence of the first confirmed case in late January 2020. We were ready to follow the instructions from medical experts to adopt different sanitation habits including washing hands frequently and wearing face masks. We accepted the concept of “confinement” and the attempts to trace the origin of every confirmed case in order to avoid the spread of the virus. We understood very well the importance of quarantine, self-isolation and social distancing. This kind of awareness was quite different from many other places where this threat was totally new. We knew this was very different from the typical flu.
Learning from Home
Soon after the emergence of the first case in late January, the busy city changed a lot. Many people were required to work from home. Similarly, children and youth started to study at home.
Schools and universities began to close in late January. Closing schools due to coronavirus, again, is not thefirst time in Hong Kong history. In 2003, schools were also closed for about a month due to the SARS outbreak. There was an online reading scheme called “A Passage a Day” offered by a university, which provided students a news article each day with three questions to read. It helped to encourage students to read regularly even though there was no schooling. However, the Hong Kong government did not think that it would be facing another round of school suspensions 17 years later. There was a comprehensive review of how we should upgrade our medical system to deal with another epidemic, but nothing was prepared for the education system. In fact, very few people imagined that the coronavirus in any form, would come back. Fortunately, the government has been keen to promote computer and digital literacy for school students. The advancement of technology during this period helped us to deal with the new situation. Online teaching and learning are now much more dynamic than before. Today, more schools and families are equipped with computers, mobile phones and other devices, and are connected to the Internet. The use of apps such as Zoom and Google Classroom reduces the distance between teachers and students. Both ends are teaching and learning from homes. As a result, most universities and schools switched from face-to-face classroom teaching to online instruction.
However, a few new problems have been identified. First, some students do not have computers nor stable Wi-Fi networks at home. This is particularly unfavorable to poorer families. Although some social welfare organisations, partnering with telecommunication providers, have launched a donation scheme of free data SIM cards to some of those in need, the digital gap that leads to social inequality is particularly noticeable during the period of not-in-person schooling. Secondly, parents may not be available to look after their children as the city is not totally locked down. Many parents still need to go to work. It is a big challenge for them to take care of their children while schools, tutorial centres, nurseries and libraries are closed. Thirdly, even if parents stay at home, it might still be difficult for parents with a low level of education. They may not be able to provide the help needed for children to learn from home. Unlike what happened in 2003, children and youth have to achieve many learning goals at home, as if they were in school. At the time of SARS, teachers and parents were not that anxious about learning behind schedule, because the suspension period lasted only one month and a half. This time, several months passed since classes were suspended in January. We are not sure if classes will resume before the Summer holiday. When parents have to assume the role of “teachers at home”, some parents find themselves unable to offer the right kind of assistance to their kids. In the absence of schooling, it exposes the problem of the rich-poor disparity.
While many schools and teachers are still struggling to do more online teaching , there are also concerns about the effectiveness of online teaching. Many teachers and students are missing meeting face to face in school every day. The situation of confining students’ life to their small homes for a long period of time is also worrying. Kids may not have adequate physical activities and possibilities to learn through social interaction have become very limited. Long screen time in front of a computer may lead to health and well-being problems as well. However, constraints may also lead to creativity in order to overcome problems. Teachers, in general, have gained good knowledge and experience in online teaching during this difficult time and have become more familiar with the creation of online teaching materials. Many of them also make phone calls to talk to individual students and their parents. This can, however, result in a heavy workload teachers, especially for those who have to take care of their own kids as well.
The Role of the Teachers’ Union
Being the biggest professional union in Hong Kong, the HKPTU has been very active in public debates about education policies and practices.
Since the outbreak of Covid-19, we conducted several surveys to understand teachers’ opinions on the need for face masks and cleaning supplies in schools, arrangements for public examinations and resumption of classes, so as to be able to transmit the views and demands of workers in the education sector to the government. The number of confirmed cases is beginning to decline. Society has been discussing the schedule of class resumption for a while. Public opinion seems to favour resuming classes in phases, with senior students heading back to class first, followed by juniors later. Some suggest to return to half day classes during early stages so as to avoid having meals at school together, which is considered a high-risk activity. Classes were resumed in phases during SARS too. We had the experience of taking public exams under epidemic conditions as early as SARS. Good hygienic habits have helped us a lot to resume normal activities.
Teachers are required to take turns to go back to schools during the suspension period in order to keep the schools open for students in need. In the early stages of the outbreak, there were fewer people on the streets. However, people were desperate for masks. Whenever masks were being sold, thousands of people would queue for hours but only a few would be able to purchase them. We devoted great effort to securing health protection material such as face masks and hand sanitisers for teacher member at close to original costs to take care of immediate needs. The supply of masks is increasing but they are selling at four times the original price.
We also expressed concern about the financial needs of kindergartens and nurseries, especially the private ones. Since they are not fully subsidized by the government, they mostly rely on school fees paid by parents to sustain their operations. However, as time goes on, parents found there was little possibility for their children to go back to school by the Summer holiday. They may and they may also face financial burdens under the epidemic.
As a result, many decided to quit school or stop paying school fees. This has put severe financial burden on childcare centre services and teachers, who may, in turn, risk dismissals or wage reductions. Therefore, we demanded financial aid for the early childhood education sector to alleviate their financial pressure and make sure teachers will not be dismissed at this trying time. We had been advocating financial support for childcare centre services since the previous school suspension during SARS. We believe that it is an important responsibility to safeguard the stability of the employment status of teachers.
In addition, we also offer help to the government-owned Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) in producing a programme called “Tutor Online”. The TV programme was originally launched in 1985 when HKPTU teacher members helped answer questions from students to support learning at home. The programme was resumed in March to help students with difficulties in learning during the epidemic with new online technologies.
At the same time, the operation of the Union has been seriously affected by the epidemic. Many meetings and events have been called off. But the teachers’ employment stability and other supporting needs are always our priorities. We are looking forward to the day when we can return to normal way of living and we wish that other teacher unions will also be able to adapt to the epic changes under the epidemic and find their ways of working. It is particularly essential for the education sector to unite as one during this trying time.
Hong Kong is a small but densely populated city with close to 8 million people situated at the southern tip of China. It is a special administrative region that enjoys a high level of autonomy under the notion of the “One Country, Two Systems” policy, with its own education system which is totally different from that of the mainland. The Hong Kong Professional Teachers Union (HKPTU) with about a hundred thousand members is the biggest trade union in Hong Kong.