Relentless COVID rules cast clouds over Hong Kong schools

HONG KONG: In Hong Kong, strict COVID-19 restrictions have long made life for school children extremely difficult. Now a new rule requiring higher vaccination levels could upend progress towards resuming full-day in-person classes.

Further delays to normal school life are likely to exacerbate young people’s mental health issues and give more reasons to leave the city, further undermining its status as an Asian financial hub, educators and business leaders warn .

“There is so much uncertainty about whether classes are going to be cancelled, can children go to school? School uncertainty certainly helps scare people away and it is difficult to attract people to Hong Kong,” said Robert Quinlivan, director of the city’s Australian Chamber of Commerce.

Some 30,000 students withdrew from Hong Kong schools in the past school year and more than 5,000 teachers quit, according to government data.

Many are part of an exodus sparked by Beijing’s efforts to exert greater control over the city and which has been further fueled by COVID restrictions. Around 113,000 residents left the former British colony in the first half of 2022. This includes expats and local families, many of whom took advantage of visa programs offered by Britain, Canada and Australia.

In a bid to boost the city’s vaccination rates, officials this month stipulated that after Nov. 1, high schools will only be able to hold full-day in-person classes if 90% of students have received three COVID vaccines.

Reaching that target before then will be very difficult for many schools, teachers told Reuters, declining to be identified as they were not authorized to speak to the media.

The most immediate impact will be on international schools – which recently resumed full-time in-person classes, having gained levels of 90% for students with two COVID injections. Local schools and some international elementary schools are still limited to half-day in-person and half-day online classes due to declining vaccination rates.

‘SENSE OF DEATH’

Schools offering study abroad programs have traditionally been a big draw for expatriate professionals, which Hong Kong relies on for its reputation as a cosmopolitan financial and commercial center close to China.

With a population of 7.3 million, the city has more than 70 international schools. By comparison, in Japan, Tokyo and Yokohama, with a combined population of around 18 million, have about 40.

Students in Hong Kong, who have done much of their learning online for the past two and a half years, feel defeated and there is a “sense of doom” in schools, said Leo, 27, former high school teacher. He quit his job in July, fed up with the restrictions imposed by the city’s adoption of China’s COVID-zero strategy which aims to eradicate all epidemics.

“The constant changes between face-to-face classes and online classes really weighed on their willingness to learn,” added Leo, asking that only his first name be used. He now works abroad as a flight attendant.

Although there are variations from school to school, other rules imposed on students include quarantining entire swimming classes (where masks are not worn) if a child becomes infected and the ban on eating on school premises for children with half-day in-person lessons. . Some students with full-time classes are not allowed to bring food requiring utensils, while all children from the age of two must wear masks outside their homes.

The multiple barriers run counter to global efforts to “live with the virus”. School children in Hong Kong have also faced much longer periods of school disruption than mainland China, which has imposed draconian shutdowns but has also had long COVID-free periods.

The restrictions almost certainly have an impact on mental health, educators and medical experts have said.

More than half of Hong Kong’s roughly 3,600 high school students showed signs of depression, according to a November study by the city’s Federation of Youth Groups.

The Hong Kong Education Bureau said COVID measures in schools exist to protect students’ health. He added that he will update the rules as needed, without giving further details.

But medical experts argue, however, that when the impact on mental health and normal social development is considered, city policies may do more harm than good.

“To focus specifically on the small number of child deaths from COVID is to ignore the big picture. The goal of public health should be to make decisions that do the greatest good for the health of people,” said David Owens, physician and founder of the OT&P chain of clinics.

(Reporting by Farah Master and Scott Murdoch; Additional reporting by Jessie Pang; Editing by Edwina Gibbs)

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