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.
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," said Yeung 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.
When reports of a SARS-like disease spreading first started coming out of Wuhan, people in Hong Kong had feared the worst: The city borders mainland China and receives tens of millions of visitors from the mainland every year. But to date, the territory of 7.5 million residents has had just over 1,400 cases and only seven deaths from COVID-19.
Lessons From SARS
Many people in Hong Kong attribute the early success to the city's collective trauma and subsequent lessons learned from the 2003 SARS outbreak, when 299 people died from the virus, which was also a novel coronavirus.
In 2003, not long after the SARS epidemic was under control in Hong Kong, a major government report stressed that the "most important lesson ... is that we must be prepared for new and emerging infectious diseases." The following year, the Centre for Health Protection (CHP) was established to prevent and control disease. To this day, CHP works closely with schools to maintain a hygienic and healthy environment.
"Hong Kong people are more prepared," Principal Ng explained. "SARS was the first time we had such a big epidemic, and at the time we were not used to wearing masks and hand-washing."
School was canceled then as well, though technology has come a long way since the Zoom-free early 2000s: "During SARS we really did stop, because there wasn't any IT."
With the guidance of CHP, many schools had already been accustomed to measures like monitoring temperature and wearing masks. "The children understand because before COVID, they were used to wearing face masks during flu season as well as having temperature checks," said Thelema Rigodon, a teacher at Tsung Tsin Primary School and Kindergarten.
SARS also led Hong Kongers to wear masks en masse. So even before the current pandemic, it was not unusual for people to wear masks when feeling unwell to prevent getting others sick. Almost two decades after SARS, residents didn't hesitate to adopt a daily mask-wearing habit in 2020. In a survey conducted just days after the city recorded its first case of COVID-19 in January, three-quarters of Hong Kong residents said they were already wearing masks to go outside. Less than a month later, almost everyone – 97.5% – said they wore masks when leaving the house.
In May, when the government declared that schools could "resume their classes by phases in a gradual and orderly manner, there was a lot of paperwork to make sure the reopening would go smoothly. Schools were required to send in their plans to keep students and workers safe. In addition, numerous hefty documents were sent to schools, including 18-page-long instructions about safety measures (for instance, certain classrooms would "need to have the setting of the desks re-arranged" so that children all face one direction instead of facing each other). And the authorities provided a sample letter to send to parents in case a child came into contact with a known coronavirus case.
To help schools cope with the expenses of additional demands such as deep cleans, the authorities disbursed HKD42 million (about $5.4 million USD) in one-time grants to virtually all of Hong Kong's 2,200 schools, attended by almost 900,000 students.
Unsurprisingly, school during a pandemic would be far from normal. The days were only half as long as usual, cutting down time spent together and giving workers ample time to disinfect the premises on a daily basis. The reduced hours would also allow many students to go home for lunch, which is considered a high-risk activity since meals are usually taken in close proximity with masks off and food particles flying.
"The most dangerous times are recess and when they buy food to eat," said Lobo Ho, the principal at Maryknoll Fathers' Secondary School, where each class voted for their own "coronavirus ambassador" to remind students to maintain social distancing.
"The students aren't used to it. We all like to hug each other! We are a bit scared, because what if we transmitted the virus? " said Adrian Ngan, 14, a Maryknoll Fathers' Secondary School student.
Principal Ho takes the concerns, and measures, seriously: "I am not [scanning foreheads] for show – I am really doing it to take their temperature," he said. "The more serious your measures, the safer you'll feel."
At Hong Kong International School, physical education teachers had to get creative for their upper primary students, ages 8 to 10. Since wearing face masks can make it harder to catch your breath during intense physical activity, the teachers found a less-demanding alternative: students stayed inside squares marked on the ground and would pose based on prompts projected onto a wall. Another option: foosball with a plastic divider taped across the table.
The school year at the international school was over on June 11, just three weeks after schools reopened, but Ben Hart, principal of the upper primary grades, was still grateful for the time back in class. "It lets kids feel a sense of closure for the school year. There are a ton of things we need to do to transition them out of a grade and get them excited for next year. We could have done it over Zoom, but it's different."
Caring for small children was a special challenge at the Tsung Tsin Primary School and Kindergarten. The playground is cordoned off, but students are allowed to ride bicycles and cars they propel with their feet.
Snacktime was a major operation. First, each student was given a plastic protective barrier that shields their front and sides so they could share a table with three others. Then, they took turns in small groups to be led to the bathroom to wash their hands, lining up in the hallway according to socially distanced dots on the ground. When they came back, a classroom assistant went around the room with a trash bag, and children discarded their masks carefully – touching only the strings – before receiving a squirt of hand sanitizer. Only then were they allowed to eat their snacks.
Despite the difficulties of getting young children to stick to social distancing rules, everyone was simply glad for some semblance of normal life after four months at home. "I think [the children] are just really excited to be back and to see their teachers and have a bit of a routine," said Lauren Brooker, a kindergarten teacher.
Classes Suspended Again
In early June, a spokesperson for the Education Bureau wrote in an email that classes had been going smoothly, adding that staff have properly implemented the health recommendations to "ensure schools are a safe and disinfected place for students to learn happily."
However, with the new spate of infections, the government is now re-evaluating its current COVID-19 strategy.
Although the school shutdown announced on Friday is certainly a setback for a society trying to return to normal, Hong Kong has yet to see any coronavirus outbreaks within schools.
And some educators believe that the SARS experience has been a key reason. "We had SARS in Hong Kong. That was before they were born, but it's in the culture of Hong Kong," said kindergarten teacher Thelema Rigodon.