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Back to School: Will Hong Kong’s Primary Students Be Playing Catch-Up?

Updated: Apr 21, 2021

Back at the end of 2019, if you’d told school principals that within a few weeks their students would be learning remotely, only interacting with teachers and classmates online, they’d have thought the idea preposterous. How could any school possibly deliver a curriculum effectively without face-to-face interaction? Yet here we are, with the summer holidays just round the corner and Hong Kong’s students having not set foot on campus since the end of January.

Compared to many other parts of the world, Hong Kong made the call to close schools fairly early on. Haunted by the memory of Sars, the Education Bureau (EDB) didn’t want to take any chances. Now schools are preparing to reopen, starting from 20 May, meticulously planning timetables, classroom layouts and meal arrangements to meet new safety and hygiene measures outlined by the EDB and the Centre for Health Protection (CHP).

But after so much time away, how hard will it be for students to get back into the swing of things? How much of the curriculum have schools really been able to cover via online learning? Will students be behind in some areas and need to catch up? If they are behind, does that matter? How will schools address gaps, and how will teachers assess progress?

It’s understandable that we, as parents, have concerns – the last few months have been quite the roller coaster ride for everyone, and many of us have been tearing our hair out trying to get kids to focus on even the smallest of tasks. Surely this can’t be everything the children would have learnt had they been in the classroom?

Vicky Davies, principal of Anfield School, urges parents not to worry. “Children are hugely resilient,” she says. “Our students have really risen to the challenges of the last few months, as have our teachers. The creativity and imagination our staff have shown in finding ways to cover the curriculum online have been amazing. We’ve kept to our normal sequence of topics and covered everything we would have done had the children been at school. The only things we couldn’t do were some of the more practical investigations in science and maths, so we’ll concentrate more on them when the children return.”

Vicky explains that Anfield chose to deliver as many live lessons as possible to keep students on track – between four and five hours a day – and arranged catch-up sessions for children who were unable to attend live classes. Not all schools have been able to offer as much ‘live time’ though, and most have opted for a combination of live, recorded and downloadable content.

Ask a cross section of parents from schools across Hong Kong how well they feel things have gone and you’ll get a mixed response, but generally, most feel that teaching has become more effective as the weeks have passed, with teachers, students and parents figuring out over time what works and what doesn’t.

Students at French International School

“The key these last few months has been adaptability,” says Chris Briggs, principal of Glenealy School, part of the English Schools Foundation. “We didn’t cut anything out of the curriculum – we simply adjusted it to fit a distance learning model. Every child’s experience of distance learning has been unique, and they all have different strengths and areas of growth. When the children return, we will differentiate appropriately for any areas that need focus. I see it as similar to other times of the year when children need additional support, challenge or extension.”

Let’s go back to that word ‘unique.’ No two households are the same. Some have stay-at-home parents, some don’t; some have multiple siblings, others just one child; some have struggled under the stresses brought about by the pandemic, some haven’t. It all adds up to create a unique scenario for each learner, and while some children have thrived, others have really struggled to get to grips with the new mode of learning. How many of us have gone in to check how maths is going only to find a child staring blankly into space or performing acrobatics on their chair?!

Reassuringly, Emma Sutton, assistant principal of Shrewsbury International School Hong Kong, is confident that students won’t be academically impacted in the long term. “All students will have been affected in some way by the school suspension – some more than others,” she says. “There will undoubtedly be areas where individual students display gaps in learning, but addressing this is what our teachers do best. We’ve used a range of strategies to assess students’ progress throughout the school suspension period, and our teachers will amend programmes of study according to the individual requirements of the children they’re teaching.”

Sounds great, but after months of home learning, with some children receiving more support from parents than others, how can teachers be sure their ongoing progress assessments are accurate? Many parents have been checking work before it’s submitted, so how do teachers know the work they’ve been marking is truly indicative of each child’s progress?

“Our teachers know their students very well,” says Vicky. “Progress doesn’t happen in big leaps; it’s a general progression. We’ve been able to identify where parents have checked work, and we’ve followed up on these cases to ensure the children understand the key concept or skill being taught.”

“Teachers know what children can and can’t do,” adds Chris. “They understand the needs of each individual child and have therefore been able to ascertain where learning has been supported or heavily supported from home and where it has been truly independent. All of that feeds into our overall assessment systems and will inform our teaching and learning cycles moving forward.”

So that’s the academic side of things, but what about the social aspect of school and the psychological impact of life during a pandemic? Some children have barely left their flats for months, and while connections have been maintained as best they can online, it’s certainly far from ideal, especially for young children in primary school.

“Our focus initially will be on reintroducing students to in-person social interactions,” says Emma. “Students will be reconnecting with their peers and with staff members as we restore the sense of safety and vibrancy that our classrooms have been missing over the last few months.”

“The social-emotional side of things is so important,” adds Vicky. “Over the last few weeks, we’ve arranged virtual social gatherings with teachers and small groups of children where they can just chat and reestablish contact with one another. When school reopens, social behaviours, along with learning to learn again, will be one of our key focuses.”

Vicky highlights two particular age groups that may need additional support over the next few weeks: kindergarteners due to move up to primary school and Year 6 students preparing for secondary. “Normally at this time of year, we’d be planning campus visits and transition sessions to get the children ready for the next part of their academic journey. We’re still going to run the programmes this year; we’ve just had to find new ways of delivering them.”

What will classrooms look like when schools reopen? We’ll find out very soon, provided Hong Kong’s recent local Covid-19 infections don’t derail the EDB’s plans. But with growing acceptance worldwide that that the virus is unlikely to disappear any time soon and that aiming for zero cases is impractical, school is on for now, albeit in a rather different form for the foreseeable future.

Header Photo Source: A student at Shrewsbury International School on 20 May when Year 4 – 6s returned to school for the first time since 23 Jan. #ShrewsburyInternationalSchool


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