HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Tao Xiaorong spent a month's rent to buy her 12-year-old son a used laptop in February, a few weeks after schools in Hong Kong closed and classes went virtual. But their Internet service is so spotty that he's had trouble participating in online classes.
"He was very frustrated and used it as an excuse to not study hard," said Ms Tao, a single mother raising her son on government subsidies in a one-room, 100-sq-ft apartment in Sham Shui Po, one of the city's poorest neighbourhoods.
"His exam scores are often below average. I'm afraid it'll get worse after this."
They are among an estimated 1.4 million residents - 20 per cent of the population - in the Asian financial hub who live below the poverty line, typically in cramped apartments with communal kitchens and bathrooms euphemistically called "cubicle homes".
Their experience highlights an educational divide that is worsening around the world as schools shutter because of the pandemic, putting disadvantaged students at greater risk of dropping out, failing to get into college and facing depression and malnutrition.
With Hong Kong set to start reopening schools this week after four months of at-home classes, educators are grappling with how to narrow the learning gaps that have expanded during the coronavirus outbreak.
The educational disparities playing out in Hong Kong, one of the world's most economically stratified societies, offer a glimpse into the struggles many countries will face in addressing the disproportionate mark the pandemic is leaving on lower-income communities.
"We will see a wider disparity," said Cheng Yong Tan, director of the Centre for Advancement in Inclusive and Special Education at the University of Hong Kong, which focuses on education inequality.
"Students from lower-income and unsupported families will be dealt a double whammy. Many were likely behind and the pandemic has made it even harder for them to catch up."
While Hong Kong's school shutdown has been among the longest in the world, nearly 160 countries have closed schools during the pandemic, affecting more than 1.2 billion students, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco). The UN programme, which works to ensure equitable education, estimates that the closures have affected almost 70 per cent of the world's enrolled students.
A Unesco report in March warned of increased dropout rates, malnutrition, social isolation and increased exposure to violence and exploitation as a result of prolonged school closures.
The digital divide further hurts learning. In the US, one in five parents say it's likely their children have difficulty completing schoolwork because they don't have a computer at home or a reliable Internet connection, according to a Pew Research Centre survey conducted in April. Among low-income families, that rises to about 40 per cent.
"This is the biggest crisis schools have ever faced," said economics professor Douglas Harris, who is director of the Education Research Alliance at Tulane University in New Orleans.
"We will see a rise in dropouts. The impact of this pandemic is going to be felt more in disadvantaged communities."
In Hong Kong, one of the world's most expensive cities, there is great disparity in the school network of 1.22 million students, from government schools and private schools that receive subsidies to well-funded international schools.
While tuition for top international schools can exceed $25,000 a year for primary school, about 23 per cent of those younger than 18 are living in poverty in Hong Kong, according to government data. Also, the city has the biggest inequality gap among developed economies in the world, as measured by the Gini coefficient.
A fifth of families in the financial hub say they don't have reliable Internet access or a computing device such as a laptop, according to a March survey by the Society for Community Organisation (Soco), a non-profit group that helps disadvantaged families.
Prof Harris and other educators say it's difficult to estimate how much the dropout rate could rise, as it will take months to see the effects of online learning. If governments respond with initiatives targeted to address inequalities - like funding for summer school, tutoring and enrichment programmes - that could mitigate outcomes, he said.
But it's likely that only the best-funded schools will run programmes to bring kids back up to speed. Hong Kong International School, one of the city's toniest, will offer free summer enrichment programmes for grade-school students, focused on giving them more opportunities for social interaction.
Ms Tao says her sixth-grade son's school isn't providing a summer programme or supplementary courses.
Back to school
Hong Kong shut down schools in late January during the Chinese New Year holidays and shifted to learning at home in February. As schools reopen, the Board of Education is trying to minimise social interaction and the chance of virus spread: It's requiring half-day sessions so that students don't eat lunch at school, and many schools are cancelling recess and assemblies. The board is leaving it up to schools to arrange supplementary learning and summer programmes, though guidelines don't address the learning gap.
Social workers who advocate for poor families say they're worried about an increase in the dropout rate, which historically has been low in Hong Kong - under 1 per cent. The more pressing concern is that low-income high schoolers won't score well enough on the city-wide college entrance exam to earn one of the 15,000 coveted university spots.
Last year, only about 42 per cent of students who took the required Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education test earned the minimum score needed to enter universities.
"The virus outbreak is dragging kids from low-income families into a vicious cycle," said Ms Sze Lai Shan, a community organiser for Soco who works with families in the city's poorest communities.
"They may not have enough time to catch up with their peers before the exam date. They are more likely to feel depressed. It's not uncommon to see some of them just give up on themselves and drop out of schools."
Ms Sze said the group has noticed more depression among children as family tensions are on the rise with the long school closures and many workplaces shut. More than 100,000 children in Hong Kong receive free lunch at school and the disruption puts many at risk of malnutrition, according to the group.
Though Hong Kong has a subsidy programme to assist students from low-income families in purchasing mobile computing devices for school, legislators last month expressed concern that few schools and students were participating. In the 2018-2019 school year, about 14,000 students applied for the subsidy, which gives grants of as much as US$595 (S$843) per pupil.
For many needy families, technology and Internet access is just one barrier. At CMA Secondary School in the working-class district of Sham Shui Po, the 740 students have a mobile computing device and Internet access through the subsidy programme, said principal Mak Yiu Kwong. Yet Ms Teresa Tang, a teacher at the school, said about a third of her students haven't completed their online assignments, though she's been regularly checking on them via phone calls.
When school reopens on May 27, she plans to offer online classes in the afternoons given the half-day schedule. Most of her students live in government housing or subdivided, tiny apartments, where it has been difficult to focus on studying. She's concerned that some are at risk of failing their annual exams.
"We're very worried that more students than usual are falling behind," said Ms Tang, who also heads the school's English programme. "I can tell the passing rates will be lower than in a normal year. We're not sure whether they can all catch up."