Tutorial centres and private tutors alike are facing economic pressure from the sharp decrease in the number of students and lessons, as Hong Kong continues to fight the spread of the novel coronavirus. COVID-19 has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation on March 11, the first for coronavirus and since the 2009 H1N1 swine flu.
With 129 confirmed cases and 3 deaths in Hong Kong as of March 12, the government advices citizens to stay home and avoid gathering to stem further spread of coronavirus in the community. Businesses are encouraged to allow employees to work from home while the government has only maintained basic and essential public services . Classes have also been suspended since the Chinese New Year holiday, which the Education Bureau later announced that the earliest resumption day would be April 20.
With the fear of contracting the disease and the horror of SARS imprinted on some parent’s mind, students are avoiding extracurricular activities and tutorial classes. Coupled with the uncertainties of the upcoming school exams and the cancellation of the Primary 6 internal examinations for the purpose of Secondary School Places Allotment, most students no longer have the urgent needs to keep up with their academic curriculum. Tutorial centres and private tutors, both used to thrive in this education-centric city, are now finding it hard to maintain their businesses.
Worst still, tutorial centres are facing an extra obstacle. Secretary for Food and Health Professor Chan Siu-chee has previously called on education centres to shut down for two weeks in a bid to minimise social contact.
Trevor So, the spokesperson of the Education Centres Union, said on a press conference on Feb.14 that more than 1000 centres had lost 90% of their students and 90% of them had had no income last month. The centres have signed a petition urging the government to shoulder half of their expenses while their businesses are closed. Upon the latest announcement of class suspension extension, So said that more than 80% of education centres they have contacted are going to close down, with a number of business-selling advertisements already surfacing on the Internet. The government has yet to provide support in the Budget or the Anti-epidemic Fund specific to the sector at the moment.
“The wave of [education centre] closure has already started,”
Trevor So said on the Feb. 27 Education Centres Union Press Conference
Even if tutorial centres remain open, they still face the sharp drop in the number of students. Alec Tang, the Scottish owner of an English-learning centre, has seen the vast majority of his students postponing their classes. “My centre is still open but [there are] only lessons with older students and are now almost exclusively 1 on 1 or 1 to 2 [lessons],” he said.
Apart from tutorial centres, private tutors are also facing similar plights. Private tutors usually have less students but provide tailor-made teaching and thus they charge more from each student. However, this also means a higher economic loss when students drop out .
Esna Chu, a flute teacher who holds private one-on-one lessons as well as after-school classes at schools, has seen a two-third drop of income last month. One-third of her lessons are from schools, which have been suspended, and half of her private students cancelled the lessons in fear of close contact, especially since they cannot don a mask while playing woodwind instruments.
In the face of the drastic loss of income, different measures have been taken to cut losses and to assure students’ safety. Tang has had to cut part-time teachers and also receptionist hours. While he has already asked his landlord for a rent reduction, but unfortunately he has not got any reply from him. Lessons are now rescheduled to be scattered on five days of the week so that the centre could be closed for the remaining days to save cost. Although the majority of classes are still postponed, Tang said that there were already a few students resuming their classes.
Online meeting applications like Skype and Zoom are also of great help to tutors in this difficult time. Not only do universities use such applications to conduct online lessons, tutors are also making use of the platforms to teach.
Chu has made use of Zoom to conduct her private flute lessons. Although the tone quality of the music could not be heard through the Internet, which hindered her to evaluate her students’ musical style, the lessons could still run smoothly for most times.
During the coronavirus crisis, tutoring industry is only one sector among all walks of life that has faced immense economic pressure and been doing all they could to hang on.
“We haven’t planned beyond mid-March yet,” said Alec Tang.
“Hopefully it gets better soon.” This wish is sure to resonate in everyone’s heart.