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Monday, March 23, 2020, 11:09
Tutoring centers in HK struggle for survival amid pandemic
By Kathy Zhang in Hong Kong
Monday, March 23, 2020, 11:09 By Kathy Zhang in Hong Kong

Visitors wear face masks at the Hong Kong Central Library in Causeway Bay on March 12. (CALVIN NG / CHINA DAILY)

Cathy Lai poured years of her best efforts into a small tutoring center in Tsuen Wan district. Just as everything was going well, she was going to lost her business to the coronavirus.

The education center has been hard-hit by the virus over the past two months. Things got worse after the Education Bureau ordered school classes and tutorials to remain suspended until April 20.

I cannot afford the rent and have no money to continue to hire teachers

Cathy Lai, an owner of a small tutoring center in Tsuen Wan district

Officials now say that April 20 might be too early to resume school operations, given the new wave of the outbreak that is due to the surge of imported cases in the city. The total number of confirmed cases recorded since March 2 has soared by about 170 percent, from 100 to over 273 cases on Sunday.

ALSO READ: HK postpones HKDSE exams, suspends classes indefinitely

Lai’s center focused on tutorial courses for primary and secondary school students, normally after school was finished for the day. The curriculum varied and usually was not formal.

Private tutoring centers engage students on a month-to-month basis, so parents and students can drop out at any time.

Lai’s center used to have about 30 students, most of whom were primary school students. But 90 percent dropped out after the coronavirus outbreak. The remaining students still come in once in a while for one-on-one tutoring.

The plunge in student enrollment put Lai in a desperate situation. Income has dropped 80 to 90 percent over the past two months.

“I cannot afford the rent and have no money to continue to hire teachers.” Lai said.

She is operating from a 25-square-meter room in a shopping mall, but she can’t afford the monthly rent of HK$18,200 (US$2,350).

Though the Education Bureau had required all schools, including tutoring centers, to shut their doors amid the pandemic, Lai decided the center would remain open for the remaining students.

“Otherwise, we would have lost more income, and the three teachers I hired would be out of work,” Lai said. 

After struggling to carry on, Lai put out a request in an online forum, asking someone to take over the center she had run for several years.

It was heartbreaking for Lai. “I’m loathe to part with the students, and the center is a testament to the great efforts I made over the past few years,” Lai said. “But I have no alternative.”

Though some tutoring centers have remained open amid the pandemic, most parents wouldn’t send their kids to them, as the whole city fear the virus.

READ MORE: Hong Kong reports 44 new cases, taking tally to 317

Hung, a mother of a year-one primary student, let her son drop an English course despite her concern that her son will fall behind in learning English.

“Once a person in the classroom contracts the disease, all others can be affected. I won’t let my son take risks like that,” Hung said.

She considered the temporary suspension of tutorial courses a good idea.

Meanwhile, no one knows how long the pandemic and school suspensions will last. The once-flourishing business in the city is now in a quandary.

Kwok Hoi-shan and her business partner decided in late February to fold the small education center they ran in a shopping mall in Whampoa, Kowloon.

She could see no hope the business could survive after the Education Bureau extended the suspension of classes again.

On Tuesday, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said the likelihood of kindergarten and primary school students returning to the classroom in the next one to two months is quite slim.

“Better a little loss than a long sorrow,” Kwok explained as her reason for closing her education center.

Lai’s and Kwok’s situations represent the tip of the iceberg of the overall impact of the coronavirus on the thousands of stakeholders in the tutoring industry in Hong Kong.

A survey by the Education Centres Union — an organization with about 1,200 local private education centers in Hong Kong — reveals that 7,000 of the total 8,500 small and midsize tutoring centers in the city will be forced to close as a result of the virus outbreak. This could make 100,000 teachers and other industry workers unemployed.

E-learning leads nowhere

The government has encouraged schools and students to continue to take lessons online. But both Lai and Kwok believe that approach doesn’t work for small and midsize education centers.

Kindergarten and primary school students are too fidgety and active to sit in front of computers for any length of time without parental supervision, Lai said.

In addition, one of the reasons that some parents send their kids to tutoring centers after school is they don’t have time to take care of them between the end of the school day and the time the parents get home from work.

“Online learning puts more of a burden on parents, which is against the original intention of tutorial schools.” Lai said.

Parents don’t have much time to supervise and accompany their kids to online tutorial lessons after supervising school lessons that have been moved online. That’s another reason for the big drop in enrollment in the private tutoring centers, Lai said.

Once classes move to the internet, the teaching and learning no longer involves just teachers and students.

Ling, a Mandarin teacher who began to teach students online after the coronavirus outbreak, said the online courses become “dates” among teachers, kids and parents.

Ling taught children under 6 at an education center in North Point. After the center’s closure in February, she uploaded some video tutorials to teach students online.

She doesn’t think the online sessions worked as well as the classroom environment. “Students sometimes don’t give quick responses to my questions in online classes,” Ling said.

According to Ling, half of her students suspended their courses after the Education Bureau announced in late January the first school-closure extension to March.

Forgotten industry

Trevor So, a convener of the Education Centres Union, said the city’s small and midsize tutoring centers have been forgotten by the government during the first round of funding in the fight against the epidemic.

Speaking at a news conference, So urged the government to provide financial aid to the hard-hit industry in the next round of relief measures, to help stakeholders in the industry ride out the crisis.

Lawmaker Leung Che-cheung believes small tutoring and education centers that offer music, arts and sports classes play a crucial role in the community for both students and parents.

Leung agrees that the government should offer assistance to the hard-hit education centers.

Lai and Kwok were reluctant to close their businesses, though closure meant they could cut their losses. Both hope their industry competitors can ride out the storm.


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