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Thursday, Feb 25, 2021

Popular Hong Kong kindergarten goes bust, leaving teachers unpaid and parents chasing thousands of dollars in refunds and deposits

Alison’s Letterland International Kindergarten, as well as Baby Buddies International Playgroup and Nursery closed on March 26. Parents say news came from ‘out of the blue’ and they haven’t heard from founder Alison Euler, who is now in Germany

An established kindergarten and nursery group in Hong Kong that was struggling financially has closed without warning, leaving parents and teachers tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket.

Alison’s Letterland International Kindergarten, and Baby Buddies International Playgroup and Nursery, which were founded in Hong Kong in 1996 and 1997 respectively, and taught children aged three months to six, folded on March 26.

The two businesses were the latest education institutions in the city to be impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Parents and teachers who spoke to the Post said they have not had any communication with Alison Euler, the founder and manager of Alison’s Letterland International Kindergarten, and Baby Buddies International Playgroup, or her husband Sven, who is also a director of the schools, since March 26 when an email was sent telling parents of the closure.

Parents have not received information about when their deposits would be refunded, and teachers said they had not been paid.

Sources told the Post the kindergarten and playgroup had been looking to sell from 2018 up until the time it closed, but none of the offers had gone through.

Teachers said Alison Euler, a mother to two adopted children, had moved her family to Germany, her husband’s home country, in October. Before that, the family lived in Discovery Bay, on Lantau Island.

The Post has tried contacting the kindergarten and nursery, but both the company phone and email have been disconnected. The Post has attempted to contact Alison and Sven Euler for comment.

Alison’s Letterland International Kindergarten is understood to have 27 students in total. The Baby Buddies International Playgroup has locations in Causeway Bay and Sheung Wan with 80 students each.

“Regarding inquiries from parents on fees matters, due advice was provided to Alison's Letterland International Kindergarten/Child Care Centre and the school was reminded to handle the matters appropriately,” a spokesman said.

“We will continue to maintain communication with the school to follow up on matters related to its closure and provide support to parents as appropriate.”

In a statement to the Post, the Social Welfare Department said: “Baby Buddies International Playgroup and Nursery Alison’s Letterland International Kindergarten are not registered stand-alone child care centres and are therefore outside the purview of the department.”

One parent, who would not give her name, had enrolled her two-year-old son at Baby Buddies in Causeway Bay, because of its long-standing reputation in Hong Kong.

He attended the school for eight months, and she paid the fees for both January and February, even though classes had been suspended since the Lunar New Year holiday. Her son attended classes twice a week, and she says she is owed HK$4,060.
Fees vary depending on how many days a student attends classes, but a full-time place costs HK$7,000 a month, with a one-month deposit.

The mother said she had emailed Euler, but it “bounces back” and Facebook messages had not been answered.

“They have just disappeared,” said the 37-year-old who owns her own business and has lived in Hong Kong for 12 years. “It really upset me … I feel it is my deposit, isn’t it my money?”

Another parent who asked not to be named has not heard anything from the school since March 26, nor has she been refunded her deposit even though she too continued to pay school fees for February and March.

Her 18-month-old daughter attended a class once a week for a year, which cost HK$1,450 per month, with one month’s tuition as deposit.

The 31-year-old human resource manager said parents had been receiving emails almost every week with videos and updates, until the second week of March, when the emails dried up.

She said when she received an email saying the school had closed, it came “out of the blue”.

“Alison was well-regarded in the community, so we all wanted to wait to hear from her,” she said. “I think it could have been handled better.”

Although she is adopting a wait-and-see approach for now, she is considering going to a Small Claims Tribunal if there is no communication by June.

The school had moved the Easter holiday, which had been planned in April, forward to the first two weeks of March, in preparation for students to return to school.

However, in an email to staff on March 13, it said: “Parents have withdrawn their kids and many have stopped paying school fees.”

It asked all staff members to take unpaid leave from March 1 and would waive the resignation notice period, if a staff member wanted to resign.

Teachers expressed disappointment over the way the situation was handled, and one told the Post they were not paid in March.
“They ignored our emails, people have not got wages they were owed, or sickness pay and things like that,” said the 28-year-old, who has managed to get a job at another school.

“I do understand they had three businesses to run, but they could have handled it in a different way with some kind of communication. I am sure all of the staff would have understood if they had at least communicated. They also have all the parents’ deposits.”

Ruth Benny, who sent her own children to the kindergarten between 2006 and 2009, said it was a “good concept”, but she was not surprised the kindergartens and playgroups had closed.

“It’s a shame that a long-established kindergarten has closed down so suddenly. I don’t believe they are victims of Covid-19 … The business had not been running well for some time,” said Benny, the founder of private schools consultancy Top Schools.

About 180,000 kindergarten pupils in Hong Kong have been affected by the suspension of classes since the end of January as part of the coronavirus shutdown, which has left businesses at risk of collapse, in part from parents withdrawing their children.

By Wednesday, more than 3 million people worldwide had been infected with Covid-19, and the death toll stood at almost 215,000. Nearly 1 million people have recovered.

Employment lawyer Russell Bennett said the failure of an employer to pay wages and other termination payments owed to staff “is a criminal offence if the failure is wilful and without reasonable excuse”.

Bennett added: “If the directors have left Hong Kong, it is often difficult for the Labour Department to pursue any prosecution against them, unless they re-enter Hong Kong.”


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