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School’s out (again)

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Schoolchildren across Hong Kong broke up for the summer holidays at the end of June, having only been back in class a month. How are they dealing with all the disruption? Jason Broderick reveals that for the most part at least, they’re taking everything in their stride

After nearly five months of lessons in pyjamas and lonely lunch breaks, schoolchildren across Hong Kong headed back to school at the end of May, squirting litres of hand sanitiser and ready to put carefully developed hygiene plans to the test. Here in Discovery Bay, seeing children and teenagers filling the footpaths again as they made their way to and from school was a welcome sight, suggesting to observers that a change was in the air.

The question is how did the students deal with the realities of school post-lockdown and, just as importantly, how did they feel about schools closing again, for the summer holidays, a month later.

On again off again
On the first day back at school after lockdown, May 20, it’s my belief that it was the parents who were the most jittery. They were nervous that their kids might not be able to comply with the necessary health regulations, and there was also a high level of nervous excitement in the air – in anticipation, perhaps, of the return to some semblance of normality (some much anticipated freedom). Either way, teaching staff throughout Hong Kong were prepared and under strict instruction to keep social distancing in place, and alleviate parents’ concerns.

The number of students waiting to be allowed to return to school got fewer day by day. Some schools had staggered starts with 60% of primary and secondary classes resuming during the first week, the remaining 40% joining the week later; other schools adopted a different approach having students come in on a rota system. The
exception has been the Early Years campuses, where teachers are still awaiting government approval of commencement of classes.

To accommodate government requirements, all students went through a body temperature screening upon entering school, lining up 2 metres from one another and donning their masks. It must have felt more like walking into a hospital than a school but the children’s sense of humour gradually returned, and staff were assured that all the special
measures were worth it, just to be back in class.

For most students the new normal of mask-wearing and constant hand sanitation was preferable to being home alone and distance learning. They openly discussed how being off school had initially seemed like an ideal situation but how boredom and loneliness had soon set in. They’d quickly realised, whether consciously or not, that school is integral to their wellbeing.

One student spoke of how she was “insanely excited to be back at school,” while admitting to nervousness about social distancing, particularly on the bus. She said her fellow students were displaying a range of reactions: “You don’t know where people are at, and how people feel, some just want to give you a big hug and others are a bit hesitant.

Another girl said how wonderful it was to be with classmates again, even though she sometimes felt like she was “in detention” due to the positioning of the desks (2 metres apart) and always having to “face forward.”

Older students, in Years 11 and 13, expressed concerns about their grades. There was acute anxiety from some, who worried they would get lower grades than anticipated because all their hard work over the past two years would not be revealed through end-of-year exams. Other students were delighted, however, relieved to be avoiding the very real anxiety that the milestone examinations bring.

Older students were also concerned about a second outbreak of the virus occurring on their return to school. However, as one boy put it, “There has to be a return at some point and we are all Zoomed out!”

Talking of Zoom, the enforced reliance on technology that lockdown afforded has provided much food thought within the education sector. Zoom and Google meetings allowed students to stay connected to their friends, peers and staff; they could log on and stay for the whole lesson, or get on with an activity whilst checking back in periodically. Social classrooms were also set up, just so students could chill with their friends and feel part of their social circle.

There’s no denying that most students missed the direct interaction of the regular school day, but there were undeniable positives. Kids started to see that although they
were apart, they could stay connected. Overall, I think once reality kicked in, along with the realisation that everyone on the planet was in the same boat, students’ anxiety lessened. They found solace in the fact that the situation was – and to a large extent still is – beyond their control.

School’s out for summer
No sooner, of course, were students back at school, than it was time for many of them to take their summer vacation. Not surprisingly perhaps, most were looking forward to the prospect. One student put it very succinctly: “Of course, we’re excited about the holidays! It will mean time away from screens, and time out of both real and virtual classrooms.”

The kids will be stuck in Hong Kong over the summer, and many of them they will miss catching up with friends and families overseas, but overall, they’re simply ready to
have some time out to relax and have fun. With so many of the social distancing restrictions lifted, this now seems like a very real prospect. Concerned that grade points have
dropped over recent months, more parents than usual seem to be considering enrolling their kids in academic-based summer camps. While some students may require extra tuition, my advice would be not to overburden them with such classes. Allow them, instead, a summer of fun – they are fortunate in Hong Kong to have more freedom than their peers in many countries overseas.

When it comes down to it, I’ve noted that as with most challenging situations, students seem to be taking all the disruption caused by COVID-19 in their stride. Sure, there are a number of children who are having difficulties but a lot of this is caused by wider external factors – global worries as a result of the pandemic and worries about the future of Hong Kong. Over the summer, parents will be well advised to give kids the space to share any fears they may have. Children need to know that it’s natural to feel worried at this time. They also need to be wellinformed. Fact-based information is likely to be more reassuring than anything they hear from their friends or on social media.

So, focus your conversations on what is improving in the world and how well you see your children doing in the future – in August, when they are (hopefully) back in school again for the long haul.

Jason Broderick is a counselling psychologist and Head of Wellbeing at Discovery Bay International School (www.dbis.edu.hk). To follow him on Instagram, head to @wellbeingcoach101.

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