Education (Part 4) : Schools as hotbeds of infection
Updated: Jul 9, 2020
Hong Kong (HK) schools are hotbeds of discontent, according to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and many pro-Beijing politicos. Consequently, politics is getting in the way of sensible decisions made in the best interests of health and education in the Special Administrative Region (SAR).
Rather than schools being hotbeds of discontent, it's more likely they are places of fear and terror!
Just consider the moves made against teachers by the HK Education Bureau (EDB) recently after they had let their political views slip in social media. Or else consider the 2012 attempts to incorporate 'Moral and National Education' in the curriculum of the local school system. In November 2019 the CCP's Central Committee unveiled a plan for 'Patriotic Education' in the mainland, HK and Macau. Then there's the criticism of Liberal Studies scapegoated for teenagers taking an active interest in what happens in the SAR going forward (see our blog 'Education and the frontline'). It was a former HK leader, Tung Chee-hwa, who in July 2019 blamed the Liberal Studies subject taught in secondary schools for encouraging violent protests among young people.
There is a different reality that we must face: schools make wonderful breeding grounds for germs, bacteria and nasty things like viruses. You confine groups of 30 kids together in classrooms, expose them to a roster of teachers, mix them up in different lessons and bring them all together for lunch time, break and assembly. It doesn't take much: a cough, a sneeze, a sniffle. A moment rubbing your eyes, an unconscious wipe of your nose, a touch of your lips. Sharing a pen or a book, your words, sharing the air that we breathe!
Schools are places where an invisible threat can be shared with us all!
When a foreign teacher, a Native English Speaker Teacher, comes to work in Hong Kong schools one of the first things they must do is undergo a chest Xray to test for tuberculosis. This is a logical initiative taken to protect students and other teachers at their school from the disease, and forms part of systematic screening that prevents and controls its spread in HK. There's nothing political about this.
Schools in most countries do other health checks as children grow up and are frequently expected to report child abuse and neglect, as well as assist with things like vaccinations and a range of infectious diseases. Finding discrepancies in childrens' eyesight and hearing are routine, as are dealing with influenza, bee stings, food allergies and sports injuries. There's nothing intensely political about this either.
There's a pandemic right now. How are schools meant to deal with Covid-19?
Worldwide schools have shut down and switched to online learning. This has been an appropriate response given the essential social distance strategy that is first answer to a contagious, airborne disease. There's not meant to be anything political about this.
Schools must respond to the threat of infection from BOTH presymptomatic and asymptomatic carriers of the virus.
Are the HK Government, its Chief Executive (CE), the EDB and the HK Centre for Health Protection (CHP) responding appropriately and quickly enough to scientific and medical advice, or have their actions become politicised?
In April the HK authorities decided to proceed with the HK Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) examinations which had originally been scheduled to begin on 27 March 2020 (see our blog "Secondary School 2020 DSE exams are illegal under law"). Some people are of the view that it's the HK universities that are applying pressure for the HKDSE 'university entrance' examinations to go ahead.
Here's the timeline:
6 February 2020 : There was some doubt about the DSE exams which act as University Entrance exams for some 45,000 HK High school students. Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung Yun-hung announced at a media briefing that all HKDSE oral and practical exams scheduled to be held before March 27 would be postponed. The exams had to be put off as ensuring the young people's health and safety was declared a higher priority.
At the same press briefing So Kwok-sang, secretary general of the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority (HKEAA), said that participation in the HKDSE exams shouldn't be considered a high-risk activity. He pointed out that the HKEAA had stepped up infection prevention efforts, with the measures including quarantine of the exam venues. Also, all candidates and invigilators will be required to wear face masks.
22 February 2020 : It was reported that students were suffering anguish about the postponed HKDSE examination. Students complained that there was a lack of transparency in the decision-making process that determined whether the exams would go ahead or not, and they were anxious that their preparation had been upset by school closures and the ongoing uncertainty over exam arrangements.
Danny Wong, a registered educational psychologist in HK, told HK Free Press that the epidemic has added a new layer of uncertainty to the already high-stress exam. He said with limited interaction with their teachers, tutors and peers, as well as an unclear exam timetable, the outbreak could take its toll on the candidates’ performance.
21 March 2020 : The CE announced a further 4 week delay in the HKDSE exams due to a spike in imported cases of Covid-19. While Chinese and English-language oral (speaking) examinations would be canceled, all other examinations would be completed before 20 May and results released to students by the end of July.
The CE also announced that the suspension of all primary and secondary school classes which had been planned to end on April 20 would now continue until further notice. To assist schools the EDB would announce details about class resumption 3 weeks ahead of the exact date.
24 April 2020 : . HKDSE exams starts with special arrangements in place. Desks were widely spaced apart, extra exam rooms were arranged, and when it got under way just a few students were absent for health reasons.
Of course, it will be June before we know if having these exams was a gamble that paid off or not.
SCHOOLS TO RE-OPEN
On 5 May 2020 the CE announced a plan to progressively re-open schools in HK. Secondary three to secondary five students will be back in their classrooms for half days of lessons from May 27, which will be just after the end of the DSE exams.
Children in primary four, five and six, and secondary one and two will return to class on June 8, with younger primary school children and those in kindergarten three going back on June 15.
Even after two cases of community infection were reported in Tsuen Wan on 13 May 2020, one local health expert believed that there was "no need to change the plan to reopen schools later this month if the new infection is just an isolated case, but other anti-epidemic measures should not be relaxed regardless".
The head of the Department of Microbiology at the University of Hong Kong, Yuen Kwok-yung, said he and other experts had urged mass testing in the city three months ago, but the government has done nothing so far. Yuen said given HK has never completely shut its borders, nobody knows if an infection chain was brought in from the mainland or overseas (see our blog on the Lack of testing for Covid-19 in HK).
The professor said he understands that people may find it tough to keep wearing masks during the summer time, but he urged a continuation of this and the maintenance of good hygiene. This will be a considerable adjustment for schools, students and staff over the coming weeks.
Wethepeopleofhk note that there was no special testing of students or staff prior and during the HKDSE examination beyond body temperature screening. That would have been a perfect opportunity to test at least a sample of the HK population for Covid-19 (see our blog on the lack of Coronavirus testing in HK).
SCHOOLS THREATENED AGAIN
In an interview with pro-Beijing newspaperTa Kung Pao published on 11 May 2020, CE Lam said there were problems in education that had to be fixed, and the government would announce this year how to handle the controversial subject of liberal studies, which some critics have blamed for inciting students to take part in the months-long social unrest of 2019.
Fact is, no sooner had protests begun in 2019, voices of opposition were making noises about Liberal Studies being the cause of it all! The subject and how it is taught has been studied intensely and revised before.
Why isn't Carrie Lam fixing the very clear problems that exist in the HK Police Force (see our blog on the Shambles in the Police Force), and dealing more effectively with the pandemic health threat, testing and livelihood issues the crisis is now giving rise to?
The CE's remarks in the interview immediately drew fire from HK’s biggest teachers’ union, which said most principals and teachers carried out their jobs professionally, and urged her to apologise and withdraw her “insulting” comments.
Lau Kam-fai, president of HK Liberal Studies Teachers’ Association, said the subject already had procedures to keep an eye on content, including discussions and review of teaching materials among teachers.
“The Education Bureau also has an inspection mechanism which will look at the situation at different schools and discuss with them how to improve,” Lau said.“I don’t believe liberal studies has [incited pupils] to join protests … students are taught to listen to different opinions and show respect and tolerance to others.”
The current government seems to have forgotten the 2014 furore that erupted after Liberal studies was scapegoated for pro-democracy protests at the time.
One Liberal Studies teacher spoke to the Straits Times newspaper: “She is not just pointing at liberal studies but also the entire education sector. The teaching materials of the subject are under heavy supervision already, but Carrie Lam mentions also the responsibility of the incorporated management committees (of sponsoring bodies) and of schools, which sounds threatening,” Mr Atung Chan said. “This move could be harmful to the autonomy of the school and educators, causing unnecessary pressure and disturbance to us,” said Mr Chan, who claimed that many teachers, like him, were angry.
What the authorities continue to play blind to, is the fact that people of all ages, young and old do not trust the CCP, and rightfully demand the universal suffrage and freedoms guaranteed the people of HK under the Joint Declaration. The CCP have clearly breached the declaration and are intent on throttling dissent in HK (see our blog HK is being throttled).
There has to be some accommodation, some respect for the will of the masses and the sanctity of human life! Ignoring health risks is one thing, imposing mind control in any form is another.
Further Reading: See our blog on issues related to the opening of HK's borders.
UPDATE: RTHK story titled 'Govt studying risk posed by 27,000 cross-border kids'! Should quarantine restrictions be dropped so mainland children can again travel back and forth between neighbouring Shenzhen on the mainland, and schools in HK for their education?
UPDATE: 14 May 2020, a scandal erupted concerning the History test paper in the HKDSE exam. The HK Education bureau criticised the HK Examination Authority for the wording and texts supplied for a test question that asked candidates to consider the impact Japan had on China in the first half of the last century.
UPDATE: 5 June 2020, parents with children at schools near a housing estate at the centre of Hong Kong's latest cluster of Covid-19 infections want all classes suspended and their school shut to prevent further community transmissions in the area. RTHK. Jimmy Sham, the councillor who represents the area, said there are at least six primary and secondary schools near the Lek Yuen Estate, where seven people have been confirmed to have the virus in recent days.