They were supposed to be sitting quietly at home and studying. But when Teresa Yip used her household surveillance cameras to check on her children from work, she saw them bouncing around the flat having fun.
At the start of Hong Kong’s Covid-related intermittent school closures that lasted almost two years, Yip would phone home and order her three children – the eldest son now aged 10, his seven-year-old sister, and their younger brother aged five – to behave and get back to their studies.
Later on, she gave up. The three would sit still and study for 10 minutes at most. “In the end I had to let go, and I could only teach them… when I was back,” Yip said.
Now she and numerous other parents, along with teachers and academics, are counting the cost of those missing months of in-person teaching. In Yip’s words, remote learning was “a nightmare.”
While a typical online lesson would last for 30 minutes, this was far beyond her children’s attention span, and often they could not keep up with the instruction.
Every night, Yip sat her children around the table after dinner and went through what they learned in the day, as well as helping with their homework. These revision sessions usually lasted almost until bedtime at 10 p.m..
But Yip was not sure how much they actually caught up. For example, her reminders on the proper way to hold a pen never stuck. “Sometimes one line from the teacher is of more worth than a thousand words from the parents,” she said.
For primary school English teacher Vivian Cheng, the inability of teachers to instantly spot mistakes and correct them was the biggest drawback to remote teaching. “I could only see their faces, but not their books,” Cheng told HKFP.
Many of the Primary One students Cheng taught could not distinguish between upper and lower case, or keep their writing between the lines of an exercise book.
During entry interviews, she realised that most kindergarten graduates who underwent online learning also struggled to read sentences aloud. “They stuttered in both Chinese and English, and could not read out the sentences, even though the task was supposed to suit their level of learning,” she said.
The capabilities of students could only be assessed face-to-face, not online.
During online classes parents of around 60 to 70 per cent of her Primary One students would sit beside their children. Sometimes she could hear students repeating what their parents told them to say when she asked questions.
As in-person teaching resumed, Cheng observed that some students who had been doing well in their homework and online classes had not in fact learnt anything.
But time does not wait for those who fall behind in remote classes, as they are promoted to senior grades. “Nothing has been compensated for,” Cheng said, foreseeing a generation that would struggle in the future.
The great catch up
Yip’s children are lucky to have parents that understood the risks involved. Taking her eldest son as an example, she said he was only learning how to construct a sentence in Primary Two, but now in Primary Four is being asked to write essays of 300 Chinese characters in 50 minutes – after almost a year of remote learning.
“All of a sudden they are asked to make a great leap forward,” she said. While Yip has been able to arrange private writing classes, many of her son’s classmates did not have the same opportunity.
Benjamin Moorhouse, an assistant professor of the Department of Education Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University, said the gap could widen among children with different family resources.
Less privileged parents might not have the time and resources to help children learn at home. At the same time, teachers had less room to cater for students’ individual needs during online classes or under the limited school time when half-day schooling was in place.
In addition, extra-curricular activities had become more dependent on parents’ resources. “When the school provides them, everyone has rights to them… when the school doesn’t, then it becomes about your resources,” he said.
The situation was even more dire for students with special educational needs (SEN), such as attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), autism or other learning barriers.
In a study by the Boys’ & Girls’ Clubs Association of Hong Kong between May and July this year, 71.1 per cent of parents of primary schoolchildren with special needs reported that their children were lagging behind compared to pre-Covid days.
The suspension of face-to-face teaching also delayed the identification of students’ special needs, educational psychologist Vanessa Ho told HKFP, as teachers, therapists and her fellow psychologists lacked the opportunity to assess children’s conditions in-person.
Before in-person classes resumed, psychologists could only meet children and parents via video calls. Ho said this made it really difficult for them to properly chat with kindergarten students and impossible to fully assess their needs. Normally, an assessment would involve meeting a child in person for close to two hours.
For Ho, who provides on-site services at kindergartens and pre-schools, that meant she had to shift her focus to aiding the parents in the hope of helping the children indirectly. “But it’s true that I met with fewer kids,” she said.
Ho and her colleagues have become much busier since schools were once again allowed to offer in-person teaching in April, and teachers finally had a clearer picture of children’s capabilities.
In the past, primary schools would usually contact educational psychologists one or two months after the school year starts in September.
But this year, teachers started calling for help as early as August. “Many cases [of students with learning difficulties] have emerged… teachers will tell us that these students are truly in need of assistance,” she added.
Even for Yip, who could afford private extra-curricular activities and had time to sit through revision sessions with her children, the downside of remote learning was tangible.
During remote teaching, Yip said the two older siblings were not allowed to turn on the camera and chat with their friends during class breaks, as their schools wanted to protect them from eyestrain. As for her youngest son, his kindergarten only offered two 30-minute online classes per week.
As a result, her children did not learn the names of any of their classmates. They could still chat to each other at home, but children without brothers or sisters struggled to socialise with others.
Even now, when children can meet in classrooms, they must still wear masks.
“Especially for children who are very young, it seems like they only happened to be in the same space. I think their motivation to interact has been reduced,” the educational psychologist said.
But the ability to form attachments to classmates, teachers and the school is highly important for academic, social and emotional development.
Yip is thankful that her three children have been attending face-to-face classes in recent months. Now they can learn the names of their friends and share experiences with them.
Make not the ‘easy’ decision
The three are also showing more curiosity and interest in learning new things. “Just a week after they started going back to school, they had learnt so much more vocabulary.”
This generation of young children have made the “biggest sacrifice” in Hong Kong’s battle against Covid, Moorhouse said.
The father of two saw the impact not only on other people’s children, but also on his daughter in Primary One. Her last two and a half years of education had been “highly disrupted,” as she missed pre-nursery school due to the protests in 2019 and because of the coronavirus outbreak had to start her kindergarten classes online.
“She’s lucky she’s got us,” Moorhouse said, as her parents are both from educational backgrounds. “But I know how some of her classmates haven’t had the same opportunities as she’s had.”
Although the government has been consulting experts in making its anti-epidemic decisions, Moorhouse thinks the pool of experts should be broadened.
“We need to be listening to teachers. We need to be listening to educational specialists. We need to be listening to psychologists. We need to be listening to social scientists,” he said. “But the experts in my field don’t seem to be part of this conversation.”
As an education scholar, Moorhouse said he was worried that online teaching has become “the easy solution” to address any future outbreaks of Covid-19 in Hong Kong.
While he agreed that distance learning can work in higher education, the overall school experience means much more for younger learners. “It’s not just learning ABCs, and one, two, threes.”
For example, he said schools have been the place for teachers to notice children’s needs, family issues, or even signs of abuse, acting as a safety net for children’s well-being.
“We can’t be too trigger-happy when it comes to closing schools,” the scholar said, urging authorities to weigh opinions from different fields and “not just make easy decisions.”
After nearly three years of disruption in education, Ho said she understood that many parents were worried that their children were lagging behind. But “the first thing” on their checklist should be to examine their own emotions.
“If you are short-tempered, angry and are coercing your children… in fact the negative impacts will far exceed the positive effects,” she said. Parents should maintain a well-balanced routine and relieve their own stresses, so that they can truly help their children.
After chatting with Yip, HKFP went with her to pick up her youngest son from the kindergarten. Before leaving, the five-year-old carefully took off his spotless white trainers that he wore only in the classroom and replaced them with another pair.
He then cleaned his hands with antiseptic gel before walking out from a school pungent with disinfectant.
Despite the Covid-19 restrictions still in place, the mother said she was happy her sons and daughter can now attend classes in person.
“I hope things can slowly return to normality, with no more backtracking.”
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