Hong Kong schools have been closed for weeks, no decision on reopening

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A primary school teacher sets up his phone before recording a video lesson in an empty classroom, for his students who have had their classes suspended due to the Covid-19 in Hong Kong on March 6, 2020.

ISAAC LAWRENCE | AFP via Getty Images

Hong Kong’s education chief is weighing the pros and cons of reopening schools and universities after ten weeks of closure due to the coronavirus outbreak, but the situation outside Hong Kong will have to be considered as well.

Education facilities in Hong Kong have been shut since early February, much earlier than many other countries in the region like Singapore, which moved schools to online learning about a week ago. 

Based on the experience during the 2003 SARS outbreak, it was safer to close schools which were “high risk” areas, said Kevin Yeung, the territory’s secretary for education, on Tuesday. He said part of the consideration was also due to the fact that many Hong Kongers were going to the mainland for the Lunar New Year, either to visit their relatives or for a holiday. But as the outbreak worsened, the government decided to extend the school closures until further notice.

Going forward, whether schools in Hong Kong can reopen will have to depend on three factors — advice from health experts, “preparedness” of schools in preventing the spread of the disease, and the supply of “preventive materials” like masks to provide a safe environment for students, Yeung told CNBC’s “Street Signs Asia.” 

It is also important to consider the handling of the outbreak beyond Hong Kong’s borders.

Yeung said it’s not just about whether the number of cases in Hong Kong can come down to zero. “We need to consider the whole situation — what’s happening in Hong Kong and what’s happening in the rest of the world. As Hong Kong has always been a open city, we are easily influenced by what’s happening in the rest of the world,” he added. 

Hong Kong’s first reported infection emerged on Jan. 22, weeks after China reported its first case to the World Health Organization in late December.

Entrance exams delayed

The university entrance examinations on April 24 will go ahead with “special arrangements” being made to extend the distance between seats at the exam centers, Yeung said. The exams had previously been deferred to March 27, before being further postponed to April. 

Candidates would also need to wear masks, undergo temperature checks, as well as declare their health conditions and recent travel history. 

“All these will add up to make sure that the center itself is relatively safe. But for the students (going) from home to the center, they are still exposed to … some risk at the public transport, or on the road. So we still need to look at the overall situation,” Yeung added. 

In the past two days, Hong Kong saw single digit confirmed cases, signaling a “more favorable situation” to keep April 24 as the date for the examination, he said.  As of Tuesday morning, the Asian financial hub recorded 1,009 confirmed Covid-19 cases and 4 deaths.

“But we are still monitoring, we have to make sure that, as I always emphasize, it’s the health of the candidates … (that) is always our first priority,” Yeung said. 

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