Around the world, countries are debating what to do about schools during a pandemic. In many places, they’ve been shut. In some they’ve reopened. Hong Kong offers a cautionary tale of how difficult these decisions can be. Schoolchildren were sent home at the end of January as the first wave of the outbreak began, originating from visitors from mainland China. Schools stayed closed through a second wave, sparked largely by European and North American travelers.
When Hong Kong appeared to be winning its war against COVID-19, schools started to reopen. That was the end of May. Things looked promising: From June 13 to July 5 there were no locally transmitted cases in Hong Kong.
But the city is now fighting a third wave of infections, and the education bureau announced that the school year would end on Friday — about a week before the scheduled last day in mid-July.
The decision comes despite the fact that, as the Secretary of Education Kevin Yeung remarked, “there has not been any confirmed cases of infection at schools, which reflects the good work of our schools.” Nevertheless, because of a sharp increase in infections in the last week [in Hong Kong], the government concluded that it’d be unsafe for classes to continue.
The situation offers a stark reminder that despite best efforts, outbreaks can emerge out of seemingly nowhere and throw a wrench in the plans of even the most well-prepared cities. “As we all know, the COVID will likely be with us for a period of time,” saidYeung on Friday. “We have to balance between the normal daily life against the spreading of the COVID.”
Back To School
When Hong Kong made the decision to reopen schools in late May, the coronavirus seemed almost entirely under control.
In early June, on the first day of class in Hong Kong primary schools after the coronavirus shutdown, there were new citywide sanitary protocols in place for schools. Things went surprisingly smoothly at Maryknoll Father’s Primary School.
Schoolchildren, in matching uniforms and face masks, lined up to have their foreheads scanned by a staff member wielding a thermal thermometer, then moved on to the next station, where they dutifully held out their palms for a squirt of hand sanitizer. While only masks were obligatory, some students went the extra mile and donned protective goggles.
To prepare everyone for the big day, the government-funded school had sent out videos that demonstrated how each step of the sanitation protocols for arriving students and asked parents to practice with their children.
“I was nervous of course,” recalled Wai Man Ng, the school’s principal. “Parents were nervous, teachers were nervous, schools were nervous.” But he believed that it was the right move to reopen schools. In a prescient remark, he said: “If we had to wait until the virus was totally gone, maybe it wouldn’t be gone even until after summer.”
Hong Kongers had been well-accustomed to such measures by this point in the pandemic; businesses and institutions had been voluntarily enacting their own safety measures – including temperature checks at entrances and mandatory mask-wearing – for months.