HONG KONG STUDENTS are about to return to school in droves. However, due to the pandemic, all secondary and primary schools in the city will have to resort to online teaching at the beginning of the new semester, meaning that students will have to learn at home. The government hopes that as the third wave of the COVID-19 outbreak is gradually easing, teaching at secondary schools can resume in phases in September. However, given the unpredictability of the pandemic, there is no guarantee that the plans to bring education back to normal will not go awry.
Since the pandemic broke out in January, secondary and primary schools in Hong Kong have been suspended prolongedly. Students have been greatly affected. Although all schools arranged online teaching to prevent students from staying idle, many of these arrangements were hastily made. Teachers, students and parents were all unprepared, which gave rise to many problems and confusions. Hong Kong secondary and primary schools adopt school-based management and have their own ways in terms of online teaching. There is not a standard practice that must be adhered to. While some more resourceful schools were able to arrange for more teachers to teach online courses, there were schools that were mostly playing educational videos in a one-way teaching mode. The learning outcomes of such so called "learning when classes are suspended" arrangements vary not only from school to school, but also according to students' learning attitudes at home.
Home learning settings largely differ from those of a school. Students are more easily distracted. This unavoidably makes a huge dent in learning efficiency. Apart from affecting students' studies, reliance on online teaching for prolonged periods as a means for foundational education for secondary and primary students is not conducive to physical and mental development either. Not only do students go to school to acquire basic knowledge, but they also learn to socialise and build friendships during their time on campus, which is even more important. This is impossible when students learn at home.
As the third outbreak in Hong Kong has receded slightly, now is a crucial time. Class resumption at secondary and primary schools has to be arranged in a careful and gradual manner. For the education sector, an even bigger issue is how to ensure that this resumption will be "sustainable", i.e., that it will not be called off as it was in May and June, when classes were suspended for just a month or so after they had been resumed, disrupting teaching arrangements and affecting learning progress.
For social and economic activities to "resume sustainably" amid the pandemic, the government must start from aspects including testing, tracking and isolation treatment. A highly efficient system for controlling the disease must be set up. Just as the catering industry cannot stand the torture of anti-pandemic measures that "are sometimes relaxed and sometimes tightened," classes cannot be "sometimes suspended and sometimes resumed". It is of crucial importance to know how to control the risks of outbreaks effectively in schools.
No doubt, given the unpredictability of the pandemic, online teaching, though not an ideal choice, is also an unavoidable one in the new normal of the pandemic. With the new semester approaching, some schools have invested more heavily in resources and computer hardware and software, hoping to improve the quality of online teaching. However, teachers need to make plenty of preparations for online teaching, and both the Education Bureau and schools themselves should provide more support for them. Furthermore, online teaching involves issues regarding computing equipment. Many low-income families have only a tiny and narrow living space and lack adequate computing equipment or good internet connections to allow several of their children to learn at home concurrently. The problems stemming from the digital divide are concerning. The government needs to strengthen its support for students with low-income backgrounds and prevent them from being severely affected in their learning progress due to their familial backgrounds and a lack of computing devices.