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 Hong Kong’s students having spent more time learning from home than on campus this year and with distance learning set to resume when international schools reopen for the new school year in August.
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. The decision to reopen schools at the end of May wasn’t taken lightly, and strict government regulations saw schools 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).
Safety wasn’t the only concern, however. After so much time away, how hard would it be for students to get back into the swing of things? How much of the curriculum had schools really been able to cover via online learning? Would students be behind in some areas and need to catch up? If they were behind, did it matter? How would schools address gaps, and how would teachers assess progress?
It’s understandable that parents were concerned – the prior few months had been quite the roller coaster ride for everyone, and many of us had been tearing our hair out trying to get kids to focus on even the smallest of tasks. Surely this couldn’t be everything the children would have learnt had they been in the classroom? The experts did their best to reassure us. Here’s a look back at the advice they gave at the time …
Vicky Davies, principal of Anfield School, urged parents not to worry. “Children are hugely resilient,” she said. “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 explained 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 were able to offer as much ‘live time’ though, and most opted for a combination of live, recorded and downloadable content.
Ask a cross section of parents from schools across Hong Kong how well they felt things had gone and there was a mixed response, but generally, most felt that teaching had become more effective as the weeks passed, with teachers, students and parents figuring out over time what worked and what didn’t.
“The key these last few months has been adaptability,” said 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 thrived, others really struggled to get to grips with the new mode of learning. How many of us went in to check how maths was 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, was confident that students wouldn’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 said. “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.”
OK, but after months of home learning, with some children receiving more support from parents than others, how could teachers be sure their ongoing progress assessments were accurate? Many parents had been checking work before it was submitted, so how could teachers know the work they’d been marking was truly indicative of each child’s progress?
“Our teachers know their students very well,” said 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,” added 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 covered the academic side of things, but what about the social aspect of school and the psychological impact of life during a pandemic? Some children had barely left their flats for months, and while connections had been maintained as best they could online, it was certainly far from ideal, especially for young children in primary school.
“Our focus initially will be on reintroducing students to in-person social interactions,” said 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,” added 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 highlighted two particular age groups that may need additional support: 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.”
Two months on, and it looks like history is set to repeat itself. How long for? It’s hard to tell, but with daily infection numbers in the triple digits, it’s likely we’re going to be in this for the long haul. The advantage this time? We’ve been there before, and we (just about) survived!
The advice and reassurance the experts gave in May is equally as valid now as it was back then. The teachers want your children to succeed, and you can guarantee that the new term will see them working harder than ever to nurture each child’s learning – whatever format that may take.
Ruth Benny is the founder of Top Schools and has over 20 years’ experience in the education system in Hong Kong. She has experience in many different areas of education – as a teacher, a teacher-trainer, a parent and now advisor for both the local and international sectors. Originally from the UK, Ruth has been in Hong Kong for over 22 years and is the mother of two children.