At least two Hong Kong universities and many public schools are asking teachers and other staff to return to work on Monday although all classes remain suspended amid the coronavirus outbreak, sparking discontent and worry in the education sector.
Unions across the political spectrum expressed dissatisfaction on Sunday with the Education Bureau and schools’ arrangements, saying the institutions had neglected the potential health risks staff might face. A representative from a pro-government union further urged the bureau to shut campuses.
The government first told students not to return to school on February 3 and extended the Lunar New Year holiday for two weeks. On Thursday, it further stretched out the date, meaning classes would resume on March 2 at the earliest, with most universities having similar arrangements.
The latest extension not only sparked anger among parents over who would foot the bill for fees, but also in many teachers because schools are required to open and provide a minimum level of service.
According to the bureau’s announcement on January 30, schools should keep their premises open, step up cleansing and take preventive measures during the class postponement period. They should also arrange a suitable number of staff to be on duty to take care of students in need, and handle school matters and parents’ inquiries.
Both the pro-government Hong Kong Federation of Education Workers and the pro-democracy Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union (PTU) said they received complaints from teachers and other staff, who were worried that going back to school would increase the risk of infection from the virus.
“Imagine students who go back to school get sick or infected, staff in schools will be at risk,” Tang Fei, vice-chairman of the federation and a secondary school principal, said on Sunday.
“We suggested the Education Bureau learn from the experience over the Sars [severe acute respiratory syndrome] epidemic and shut down all schools, until the schools are well-prepared.”
Tang added that the federation had filed concerns with the bureau, which said “there are difficulties [in closing all schools]”, without giving reasons.
The PTU also received dozens of complaints from teachers that principals had required them to return to school for meetings, which they saw as unnecessary.
Education sector lawmaker and PTU vice-president Ip Kin-yuen demanded the schools be more flexible and not put teachers at risk.
A bureau spokesman said it was necessary for schools to remain open for students who were unable to stay at home. The bureau also reminded schools to avoid staff gathering, and suggested they use online platforms to hold meetings instead.
Meanwhile, in the tertiary education sector, Baptist University and the University of Hong Kong (HKU) told staff they would gradually resume business on Monday.
The Education University of Hong Kong said flexible working arrangements would be in place but did not specify for how long, while the other five universities would allow staff to work from home until either February 9 or February 16, depending on the institution, but only essential staff would have to return sooner.
However, staff at Baptist University and HKU were unhappy with the move because the government had extended work-from-home arrangements for civil servants until February 9.
“University management is simply too rigid,” Benson Wong Wai-kwok, who chairs the Hong Kong Baptist University Faculty and Staff Union, said. “Many of the staff worry that there will not be enough masks and resources, and the university is asking them to work.”
Those working in the library, computer department and property division all had to return to the campus and would meet students and staff during work, Wong believed.
“We demand the university reconsider its decisions, and be more flexible.”
District councillor Camille Yam Ka-yi, who serves the constituency around HKU, said she had received many requests for help from staff. She added that she had sent a letter to HKU and hoped the university would extend work-from-home arrangements.
In response to the requests, an HKU spokesman said flexible arrangements would be exercised, with operations and staffing expected to be at a basic level and only a small group of core workers on campus for urgent business.
As of Sunday morning, the number of coronavirus infections in mainland China had soared to more than 14,000, with the death toll above 300. Hong Kong confirmed its 14th case on Saturday evening.
The World Health Organisation has declared a global health emergency.
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