HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Angry parents in Hong Kong are criticising a government order to close schools again, leaving more than 500,000 kindergarten and primary school children locked out of classrooms as the financial hub races to contain an Omicron outbreak in the community and enforce its outlier Covid-Zero policy.
Schools across the city will suspend in-person classes for kindergarten and primary schools from Friday (Jan 14) for about two weeks until the Chinese New Year holiday, echoing a repeat of closures two years ago that upset exasperated parents.
It was at least the fourth mandate to close classrooms since the pandemic began - with Hong Kong instituting one of the longest school closures globally at one point - and comes as other cosmopolitan cities from New York to London and Sydney elect to keep schools open and live alongside the virus.
"It feels like it's Groundhog Day all over again - they are closing schools, saying they are doing it to protect our kids, but they are in fact harming them," said parent Jen Yuan, whose daughter is enrolled at English Schools Foundation Tsing Yi International Kindergarten. "School is the safest place for them. There are more social distancing restrictions at school than there are at the dim sum houses that they are allowing to stay open."
Shutting classrooms again is the latest in a raft of intense measures Hong Kong has adopted in recent weeks, as part of a zero-tolerance virus policy that China has deemed necessary for the territory to reopen borders with the mainland.
Air passengers from "high-risk" countries are set to be banned from transiting through Hong Kong International Airport, Bloomberg reported on Tuesday.
The authorities last week closed gyms and playgrounds, and stopped dining-in at restaurants in the evenings.
As schools and teachers prepare to go back to virtual learning on video calls, parents are taking to chat groups and social media to vent. Many say the government is overreacting to a small number of cases - the city found just 42 community-infected cases after conducting around 920,000 tests over the past two weeks - and are upset the government is not doing more to vaccinate older Hong Kong residents who are more at risk. Less than a quarter of those 80 and older are inoculated.
Hong Kong imposed the order after three children, two three-year-olds and a four-year-old, tested positive after exposure to infected relatives at home. None of the infections occurred in a school setting.
"It's a very difficult decision to make," Chief Executive Carrie Lam said while announcing the school closures on Tuesday. "On the one hand, we want to protect children from infection. But then if we suspend classes, we know there will be drawbacks in relation to their mental and physical development."
Some parents are already petitioning the government to keep schools open.
Ms Felice Blake wrote to both Mrs Lam and the head of the Education Bureau, and urged other families to do the same while sharing a letter template on a mothers' group on Facebook.
A lawyer who has worked on children's rights issues, Ms Blake said Hong Kong authorities are not adhering to the United Nations' Convention on the Rights of the Child, which says children are entitled to education and play.
"If you're going to do it, you have to use it as an opportunity to bring the cycle to an end," Ms Blake, who has a three-year-old son, said about the school closure. "But they are not vaccinating kids in that period. They are not doing enough to vaccinate older people."
The city plans to expand its vaccination programme to give children between the ages of five and 11 years China's Sinovac vaccine. Mrs Lam said the vaccination programme for children in that age group will be administered at schools once they reopen after the Chinese New Year holiday in early February.
Both the UN Children's Fund, Unicef, and the global body's Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, or Unesco, have called on governments to avoid school closures whenever possible.
UN data shows that more than 24 million students risk not returning to school after school closures during the pandemic.
Hong Kong schools had a mixed response to the latest classroom closures. At the private Hong Kong International School, teachers were told last week to prepare for virtual learning and have been sending school-issued iPads home with students daily in case the campus was closed overnight.
"Teachers are ready to go virtual on Friday - they've been preparing for this eventuality," Hong Kong International School spokesman Carrie Chen said. "They have online materials prepared, and they'll be talking to kids about the expectations for home learning."
At Chiu Sheung School in Hong Kong's Western district, principal Chim Hon Ming said many schools were worried about teachers who will need to put in more work to prepare remote learning materials and interactive activities.
Some students may also still lack equipment for online school despite Hong Kong's subsidy programmes.
Last year, Mr Chim's school helped more than 100 families get government-subsidised tablets and distributed dozens of mobile SIM cards for home Internet connections, he said.
"We really don't want another suspension of face-to-face classes," Mr Chim said, adding that virtual teaching is less effective because students tend to be less focused and it is harder for teachers to notice misbehaviour.
"But it can't be helped because it's for the sake of controlling the pandemic."
The shuttered classrooms will put extra pressure on working parents, many of whom will have to scramble to find someone to take care of their children, said Mr Ho Chu Ping, president of the Federation of Parent-Teacher Association. Some parents have had to form volunteer groups to help babysit for other families in need, Mr Ho said.
The Education Bureau has instructed schools to remain open to look after students who do not have anyone to take care of them at home. Still, parents said many young students need adult support to help them attend virtual classes.
The non-profit group Organiser of Society for Community Organisation, which helps low-income and immigrant families, is bracing for more families to seek aid as schools close and the latest wave of restrictions kick in.
Already, there has been an uptick in families who cannot afford rent, food or even an Internet connection in a city where multi-million-dollar apartments can be a stone's throw away from shabby sub-divided single-room dwellings shared by multiple families.
"The school closure is another hit to their hard life," said community organiser Sze Lai Shan. "I truly hope this is the last round of Covid-19 outbreak and social restriction policies. People's lives are getting worse."