Published: 00:24, March 2, 2022 | Updated: 00:23, March 2, 2022
More efforts needed to reverse education marginalization amid war against COVID
By Manoj Dhar

Being the UN’s fourth International Day of Education, Jan 24, should have been a day to applaud educational innovations and celebrate the positivity of education’s ever-increasing outreach.

Instead, The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund revealed the disquieting fact that the onslaught of COVID-19 has adversely impacted more than 616 million students’ education through full or partial school closures. Not only have children lost basic numeracy and literacy training, the regression of their mental, physical health, social development and nutrition appears to be of Himalayan proportions. The abysmal increase in the educational poverty of our young ones, puts the responsibility squarely on the empowered adults for having woefully failed the young ones. 

The quicker the vaccine-shy adults exhibit better sensitivity and respect toward Hong Kong’s children, and take responsibility for having created the mental and emotional distress to the children; the sooner the children too can recover

The UNICEF report also commended countries like China, the Republic of Korea and Singapore, which managed to pivot swiftly and were able to respond positively to COVID-19 educational disruptions by implementing their well-developed information and communications technology. As digital learning is intrinsic to their foresighted education masterplans, this certainly enhanced their readiness to shift to large-scale online learning; thus, minimizing loss to the children’s learning journey. 

Closer to home, per HKSAR government data since the start of the vaccination program in February 2021 and at the time of writing this article — 82.2 percent of the eligible population had received the first vaccine dose, 73.9 percent of the eligible population had received the second vaccine dose and 17.9 percent of the eligible population had received the third dose.

Given that the government has been emphatic in its goals of achieving 80 to 90 percent of the population’s total vaccination rate, before mulling the possibility of transitioning from a “dynamic zero infection” strategy to that of “living with the virus” strategy; as frequently reported, the public enthusiasm has been underwhelming. Despite the government’s best efforts in running a most efficient vaccination process, with extremely helpful frontline medical staff and volunteers, making the vaccination free, providing all with the option to choose the vaccine brand; Hong Kong continues to struggle to get the entire population vaccinated.

This served to slow the pathway back to “normal”, severely impeding the educational journey of Hong Kong’s children. Thus, half-day schools and excessive online learning continue to take a heavy toll on the mental, emotional, social and physical well-being of our children. 

In an effort to galvanize the schools into action and to encourage them stemming the rot of educational marginalization of the children, the EDB recently announced that schools with 70 percent or more of the students having received a vaccine for more than 14 days, would be allowed to resume whole-day face-to-face classes. This is what the local schools should have been proactively striving for all these months. 

The EDB’s announcement could not have come at a better time, considering that the disruption to and marginalization of Hong Kong’s students dates back to November 2019, when the social unrest first disrupted their academic journey. Per the EDB, for the academic year of 2020/21, Hong Kong has a total of 866,493 schoolchildren. Per the Census and Statistics Department, our population stood at 7.4 million in mid-2021. The recent prolonged closure of primary schools, will further negatively impact the more than 360,000 children. Thus, rather than fret over the drop in our birthrate, it would augur well for Hong Kong’s empowered adults to first and foremost prioritize and behave responsibly toward the 11.7 percent among us who are school-going children. Despite these stark facts, a recent poll by the Education University of Hong Kong academics indicated that a mere one in 10 parents, with children in the age group of five to 12 years, are willing to let their young children receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

One hopes that these concerned parents would make more attempts to better educate themselves regarding the necessity, efficacy and impact of these vaccines by conferring with medical professionals, rather than adopt such a staunch resistance. It’s not just the learning losses, but also the socio-emotional losses, that are hurting the children. The prolonged online learning model is exacerbating the frequently reported educational inequalities for the economically weaker segment of our society. The reliance on the online model, has made the digital divide even more stark, with a disproportionately higher number of children from poorer families falling off the educational wagon. This has further accentuated the need for equity and inclusiveness in learning and the critical and immediate need for “learning recovery”.

While the EDB has constantly encouraged schools that close during the period of face-to-face class suspension, schools should remain open to look after students who lack carers to take care of them at home. Schools should also arrange for staff to be on duty to handle school affairs and answer parents’ inquiries and ensure the environmental hygiene of the school campuses. Sadly, such common courtesies and humanitarian gestures have been far and few, adding to the academic woes and educational poverty of the children. It is only recently that one has heard of some educators expressing concern regarding the deep learning losses of the young ones, which are bound to take years to catch up and recover.

The educators and educational institutions would do well to focus on learning recovery. The empowered stakeholders must appreciate that literacy growth of children has slowed or worse still, regressed. This calls for a conscientious effort by the educators to refrain from racing ahead recklessly just to finish the academic course and curriculum. The good sense approach is to proactively take into account the prolonged hemorrhaging in the children’s learning process and prowess and recalibrate the course work and material; thus, facilitating a phased, gradual and well-planned learning recovery. This calls for a certain innovation in education and the stakeholders would do well to reimagine education and the pedagogies involved. The prioritization of the marginalised young ones must be addressed on a war footing.

Education was and always will be the driver of any economy and society. And nothing can replace a classroom. So, the quicker the vaccine-shy adults exhibit better sensitivity and respect toward Hong Kong’s children, and take responsibility for having created the mental and emotional distress to the children; the sooner the children too can recover!

The author is the co-founder and CEO of Integrated Brilliant Education, a frontline NGO providing equity based, inclusive and equal language learning opportunities to Hong Kong’s underserved and educationally marginalized non-Chinese-speaking children.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.