by Kriti Gandhi & Harpreet Singh
The pandemic in many ways has changed the way the world perceives online education. What once was a conservative and doubtful view on online school, has now resulted in a shift. With much learned and gained from “Zoom School”, parents, students, and educators have begun questioning the flaws within the traditional education system. Despite the many changes brought upon by the pandemic, there is another issue that has been lingering far too long in the shadows, the ignored or overlooked disparity between the rich and poor.
According to government statistics, Hong Kong’s wealth gap hit a historic high in 2017, with the wealthiest households earning 44 times the poorest. In the following years, the pandemic has merely made it harder for this demographic to sustain residing in the city. This article aims to shed light on the educational disparities existing between students from local schools and international schools, under the influence of the global pandemic.
Although the conversation has been mainly about the long-lasting effects of COVID-19 on the traditional education system, the real picture is far more complicated than the perceived black and white. During interviews with key stakeholders from local and international schools, it was discovered that although both sides of the spectrum have had their struggles with “Zoom School,” local schools that have been dealt an unfair hand since their inception, have only seen the situation worsen during the pandemic.
International schools were deep-pocketed and adequately equipped to familiarize themselves with e-learning platforms, preparing them for the difficulties that followed the abrupt, unforeseen curriculum adjustments for e-learning and online education.
On the other hand, Hong Kong’s local school scene had a different story to tell. Not only did the sudden introduction of “Zoom School” catch teachers unprepared and helpless, schools simply didn’t have enough resources or experience to make sufficient adjustments to cater to their student’s learning needs.
Hong Kong Education Bureau School Suspension Timeline
International schools under the pandemic
Life as an international school student during the pandemic has not been a lap of roses, however, it is also true that compared to the conditions faced by students from local schools, it has been an easier transition.
During an interview with Jadis Blurton, the founder and head of The Harbour School, an international school in Hong Kong, it was revealed that the school had prior exposure to online learning and was able to swiftly make changes to adjust to the very first Education Bureau regulations. “We already had experience with the virtual education system and gone through trials of what we could improve, we were actually way ahead of the curve,” said Blurton.
International schools in Hong Kong have high annual fees that often come with perks. International schools in Hong Kong, with their abundant financial resources, offer some of the best educational resources and facilities that can be found anywhere in the city. Thus, when the pandemic hit and schools were forced online, “Zoom School” for international schools was not as great a hurdle, comparatively.
Moreover, it can also be argued that the international school curriculum is far more experiential, and dynamic, and often encourages unconventional means of learning. For example, Blurton stated that during the “Zoom School” period, the school encouraged experiential learning and organized events and activities for students to show that, “school should not be contained inside four walls.” Students at The Harbour School not only managed to carry out traditional face-to-face class activities online but also hosted a very successful art fair. Such a learning culture, environment, and curriculum also make it easier for students to easily and flexibly adapt to the sudden changes in learning mode.
In addition, students from international schools, with sufficient financial support are able to cater to all educational needs through extra private classes and private tutors, a luxury many local students cannot afford. According to Amelia Ku, a grade two student at Yew Chung International School, she consistently received assistance from her helper and private tutors at home throughout “zoom school,” making the transition from offline face-to-face learning to online smoother.
Interviews with Rita Pang, CEO and founder of See Change Education, Jadis Blurton, the founder and head of The Harbour School, and Amelia Ku, a year two student at Yew Chung International School
Local Schools under the pandemic
The local education system is often described as tough, rigid, and competitive in Hong Kong. Local schools heavily suffered the consequences of the sudden pandemic policy changes. The local education system was both underprepared and not ready to transition to online learning when the pandemic first began.
Unlike international schools, the demographics of local schools consist of students from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds. Often, this means that there can be extremes present in the student body.
Athena Wan Wing Sze, Principal of Ju Ching Chu Secondary School, said, “At my school, a third of the students are either on welfare or on full subsidy, so it can be difficult for them to get wifi or devices. Oftentimes, they have had to compete with their siblings for the only notebook [laptop] at home.”
The socioeconomic background of students can limit their access to resources that can be deemed necessary for online learning to be successful and productive. Students may also lack access to a suitable learning environment at home. With the sudden shift to online learning, many students also suffered from mental distress and depression at Wan’s school. These limitations can pose a threat to a child’s education and growth, further highlighting the educational disparities and opportunities between the rich and the poor.
This disparity is being addressed, almost two years later—with the help of non-profit organizations and government subsidies like the Quality Education Fund, students now have the opportunity to access resources like wifi and devices that will allow them to receive a quality education. These funds aim to make it easier for local school students to adapt to online learning under unprecedented circumstances.
The focus hasn’t been entirely on school resources and students, the pandemic has also introduced major game changers for teachers as well. During an interview with Rita Pang, founder, and CEO of See Change Education, an online tutoring agency, it was revealed that the hiring criteria have evolved. Now, there is a demand for teachers with tech skills, teachers who can work on computer software and platforms such as Zoom and Google Classroom. “The requirements of talent, both from the founder, the management team, and new hires have changed,” said Pang.
According to Alyssa, a primary 4 student at a local primary school, the shift to online education was confusing and hard to adapt to. “At times, we had to help my teachers use online learning platforms like Zoom because they didn’t know how to.” She also addressed that she had limited to no support from parents or guardians with the online school as they were busy at work.
Online education can force educators to open themselves up and try different methods of teaching. This experience can also be beneficial for students to equip them for future learning and opportunities. Due to the constant and abrupt changes in social distancing rules in Hong Kong, Wan’s school has adapted to designing a schedule that can work under all circumstances. However, Wan still believes that there is no comparison to face-to-face learning. “Online education is just not viable for local schools because of the extreme limitations that come with it for students, teachers, and school,” said Wan.
Interview with Athena Wan Wing Sze, Principal of Ju Ching Chu Secondary School
The search for the effects of the pandemic on Hong Kong’s education system and schooling led to a deeper issue lingering in the background. Often overlooked and ignored, the educational disparities between local and international school students were highlighted throughout the quest for answers. Hong Kong is a city of opportunities—however, local school students who lacked the proper resources and financial support, struggled to keep up with the swift policy changes, and e-learning soon became a hindrance to their educational growth. While online learning may be the future of our traditional education system, the disparities within local and international schools in Hong Kong raise many questions as to how well these issues can be addressed in the future. Can Hong Kong’s education system truly achieve equality, and can the city truly offer the lesser privileged a fair playing field?