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Pity the children: Hong Kong counts the cost of months of virtual lessons amid the Covid pandemic, with no time to play, make friends

Tan KW
Publish date: Tue, 11 Oct 2022, 06:49 PM
Tan KW
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Hong Kong housewife Janice Lau is worried that the Covid-19 pandemic not only disrupted her children’s school life, but also affected their development as they lost out on interacting with classmates and playing with friends.
Her daughter Sophie, 10, who is in Primary Five, and son Matthew, six, in Primary One, attended only half-day classes or online lessons after the pandemic broke out in early 2020.
“Sophie’s Primary Two to Four went missing,” she said. “For many months, she attended virtual classes, which meant staring at a screen with 30 tiny boxes, each representing a classmate.” 
Matthew, who has autism and developmental delays, is struggling to cope in the school setting.
“It has been quite difficult for him, and he’s had a lot of negative emotions to express when he came back from school every day,” Lau said.
For more than 800,000 children in Hong Kong, the pandemic meant spending a total of 10 months attending virtual lessons at home instead of being in school with classmates and teachers.
Experts are beginning to gauge the emotional and developmental impact on different groups, from preschoolers to primary-level children, and teenagers in secondary school.
Most agree that the disruption has taken a toll on Hong Kong’s children, and some need closer attention and help to cope even as the city eases its coronavirus restrictions.
Social workers noted that many of those whose kindergarten years were disrupted struggled to write and communicate confidently, or had trouble separating from their mothers to go to school.
They said primary school pupils found it harder to make friends in school, while some teenagers had anxiety and other emotional issues.
Since 2020, the Education Bureau suspended face-to-face teaching three times as the city battled wave after wave of Covid-19 infections.
The suspensions lasted from late January to late May 2020, mid-November 2020 to mid-February 2021, and from mid-January to mid-April this year.
Instead of going to school for a total of 27 months, children spent only 17 months in school attending mostly half-day classes, staying home for the remaining 10 months, having virtual classes.
Although there were periods of face-to-face classes, Lau said her daughter Sophie had to adjust as her classmates changed.
“Some pupils moved to another class or school, and some emigrated. So Sophie could not really remember who her classmates were in Primary Three and Four,” she said.
Her school friends were mainly those who went to the same after-school tutorial classes.
“Now there are half-day classes, but the recess is short and pupils must stay in their seats except when they go to the toilet. It’s completely different from the old days when children could run around and really have a school life,” said Lau, whose youngest child, a toddler, is not yet in school.
Experts have highlighted the impact of the pandemic disruptions on children in different age groups.
Catherine Au Ka-lee, an educational psychologist at The Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs Association of Hong Kong, an NGO, said virtual learning was not a good idea for toddlers and preschoolers, as they had a short span of concentration.
“Kindergartens are places for young children to develop school readiness, and learn through their five senses, whereas virtual classes only allowed them to look and listen,” she said. “During the pandemic, toddlers also lacked the experience of going outdoors, or learning social skills through winning or losing games.”
Carol Wan Sze-ngar, who is in charge of Hong Kong Lutheran Social Service’s pre-primary social work unit, also noticed more young children struggling with basic skills.
“The kindergarten children are very attached to their mothers or carers, and unwilling to be separated from them,” she said. “They are also not as strong in expressing themselves verbally, as they missed out on the learning environment of a school setting.”
Instead of human interaction, children have been spending more time on electronic gadgets.
A University of Hong Kong (HKU) study released last month found that the average time primary school pupils spent on electronic gadgets surged from two hours before the pandemic to seven hours, while for secondary students it was nine hours, an hour more than before.
The study also found only 5 per cent of the 759 primary and 1,140 secondary students surveyed exercised for at least 60 minutes per day, as recommended by the World Health Organization.
Sociologist Stefan Kuhner, who has been studying the impact of Covid-19 on children aged 10 to 12, was concerned that many described their lives as being “stressful” since 2020.
“Middle childhood is when children start to spend more time away from their family and more time in school, with friends,” said Kuhner, who is associate dean of Lingnan University’s social sciences faculty.
“Being forced to spend more time in lockdown ... risks interfering with the normal development, not only of children’s academic ability, but also their identity.”
Clinical psychologist Rachel Poon Mak Sui-man warned that primary pupils could also have suffered from the lack of physical activity and social interactions in school.
“Many of us are still in touch with our primary schoolmates because they were our playmates; we played together during recess and lunch time every day, but these activities are not allowed now,” she said.
She was also concerned about children with special education needs who could not have face-to-face meetings with their therapists.
“If they have attention deficit or hyperactivity disorder, they are unlikely to pay attention in online sessions,” she said.
The Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs Association of Hong Kong interviewed 525 parents from May to July to gauge how families with children with special needs coped during the pandemic.
More than 70 per cent of those with children in primary school said their learning had suffered, and 57 per cent said their youngsters’ emotional issues worsened.
Almost a quarter of the parents with special needs children in kindergarten and two-fifths of those with youngsters in primary school also showed medium or serious signs of depression, the survey found.
Veteran social worker Lam Yee-mui, a senior consultant with the association, said that these findings highlighted the need for NGOs, parents and schools to do more to help children with special needs.
“Social workers and teachers also need more training to take better care of these children,” she said.
The pandemic also widened the gap between children from different socio-economic backgrounds.
Cheung Yung-pong, honorary chairman of the Aided Primary School Heads Association, said better-off parents hired private tutors or sent their children to tutorial centres during the pandemic.
“Some children might be able to communicate better in English because they spent lots of time with their foreign domestic helpers ... but others lived with siblings in subdivided flats,” he said.
“This has resulted in a greater diversity in pupils’ capabilities and it’s more challenging for teachers to cater to the needs of all children and work with parents to help them.”
Poon, the clinical psychologist, said she was concerned about teenagers, who missed being with friends during a critical period of growing up.
“Peer influence is an important feature of adolescence. But many teenagers had to stay home during the pandemic, and all their actions were put under their parents’ magnifying glass,” she said.
She had come across many teens who found life during the pandemic to be “defeating” and had become reclusive.
“Without the routine of going to school every day, some became socially unmotivated and felt nervous or worried about taking part in social activities,” she said.
Lawmaker Tang Fei, a former principal of Heung To Secondary School in Tseung Kwan O, said the pandemic had also caused teenagers to worry about their university entrance exams.
“Students sitting the Diploma of Secondary Education exam next year have done both virtual and face-to-face classes since Form Four,” he said.
“For science students, many of their laboratory sessions were cancelled, while for students taking other subjects, the efficiency of virtual lessons was low and it has been difficult for teachers to catch up.”
However, he added that while the authorities, teachers and employers had to pay more attention to children who grew up during the pandemic, it was important not to wrongly label them as “special or problematic”.
Lutheran Social Services social worker Ip Man-lung said that in a poll conducted by the organisation, six out of 10 secondary school pupils said they were afraid of taking off their masks when meeting friends.
Nearly half the 1,051 respondents also said that the pandemic made them more worried about attending social gatherings.
Ip said these teens had to be reminded that they needed a social life and schools eager to organise group activities had to do it step-by-step and be mindful of whether their students were ready.
HKU chair professor of population health Paul Yip Siu-fai was concerned about the mental well-being of Hong Kong children, and pointed to a disturbing trend in suicides.
Earlier this month, the Hong Kong Jockey Club Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention found that the suicide rate of children under 15 years had reached a record high last year.
Statistics from the Coroner’s Court showed that the suicide rate for children under 15 rose from 1.2 deaths per 100,000 people in 2020 to 1.7 deaths last year. There were 11 suicides of children below 15 last year and 10 in 2020, compared with only two in 2015.
Yip, director of the centre, attributed the rise in part to disruptions caused by the pandemic and the suspension of face-to-face lessons in school.
“According to police investigations, academic pressure, family troubles and loneliness could be the reasons young people committed suicide. All these factors have become more common in the past three years,” he said.
“For low-income families, the challenges during the pandemic were also greater than for the better-off ... so we hope the government will not adopt across-the-board school closures in future.”
Experts have pointed out that children from better-off homes had tutors and space at home for online lessons, whereas those from poor families struggled with bad internet connections, cramped living environments, and a lack of academic support.
Psychologist Au said that to help young people with emotional problems, teachers and parents had to watch out for any unusual change in behaviour.
“We also need to counsel them, so they know how to guard themselves against negative thoughts,” she said.
* If you are having suicidal thoughts, or know someone who is, help is available. Dial 2896 0000 for The Samaritans or 2382 0000 for Suicide Prevention Services.
In the US, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on +1 800 273 8255. For a list of other nations’ helplines, see this page
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