Hong Kong schools to reopen with daily Covid-19 testing for students

Pupils and staff will be required to take rapid antigen tests for Covid-19 each day before coming to school. PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Shuttered since mid-January, Hong Kong's schools are set to reopen after the Easter holiday as the city emerges from its worst coronavirus wave that took more than 8,600 lives.

Students and staff will need to submit to daily Covid-19 testing to comply with new rules.

Public primary schools can resume in-person classes starting from April 19, while secondary schools can hold half-day sessions from May 3, according to the government.

International and private schools have been given flexibility to reopen any time from April 19, with some set to start the following week after a pre-scheduled Easter break.

Hong Kong is one of the few developed economies to have imposed shutdowns of educational institutions to battle virus flare-ups, while most of the rest of the world has relaxed such curbs.

With at least four school closures in Hong Kong during the pandemic, the disruption to learning has been a fraught issue for irate parents, some of whom have chosen to move out of the city.

Hong Kong's Education Bureau said in a memo on Monday (April 11) that pupils and staff will be required to take rapid antigen tests for Covid-19 each day before coming to school.

Positive cases need to be reported to the health department, it said.

While the need for daily testing is rare, many schools around the world do mandate regular testing. For instance, Los Angeles requires weekly checks for all students and employees, regardless of their vaccination status.

Many parents in Hong Kong expressed relief with the scheduled resumption of in-person instruction.

"I'm willing to do anything to help them get back to school," said Ms Jen Yuan, whose daughter is enrolled at a kindergarten run by the English Schools Foundation. "It's very tough for kids this young to do online school. The quality of learning is always much better in the classroom."

There are about 900,000 students in the Asian financial hub, spread across government and private schools that receive subsidies, to well-funded international campuses where mostly expatriate parents pay more than US$30,000 (S$41,000) in annual fees. The city's more than 50 international schools enrolled about 41,000 students in the 2020-2021 school year.

While local schools with different divisions are likely to stagger their reopening, many international schools with bigger campuses will be resuming classes in all divisions on April 19.

Hong Kong International School and Chinese International School will also restart classes on April 19, while Kellett School will resume regular school hours from April 25 after returning from Easter holidays, according to notices sent to parents.

Under the new rules, if schools see more than 5 per cent of its total students and staff testing positive in a single day, or more than 10 per cent in a particular class, the health department may take action, including suspending classes or conducting disinfection of the premises, according to the Education Bureau.

Sporadic cases would not lead to suspension, said Director of Health Ronald Lam.

The Education Bureau is also encouraging schools to help get students vaccinated. Only those who are doubly inoculated will be able to participate in extra-curricular activities.

Students and staff also would not be considered close contacts of an infected Covid-19 case associated with the school, a change from the previous policy that saw students being sent to quarantine when classmates tested positive.

Governments around the world, including in the United States and Europe, have reopened schools, with countries resolving to relax or end pandemic restrictions.

Hong Kong, however, has largely stuck to its Covid-Zero goal to align with Beijing's policy.

Mainland China has lately been struggling with a wave of infections that triggered a lockdown in Shanghai, a city of 25 million people.

Hong Kong's number of daily Covid-19 cases dropped to the lowest in almost two months as the city ends a voluntary citywide testing exercise that has uncovered more than 2,000 infections in the entire population of 7.4 million people.

Though many social distancing rules have been relaxed, restrictions are still in place.

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