Major international schools in Hong Kong are shortening their year-end and other breaks to give expatriate staff a longer summer holiday to return home and still meet the city’s strict quarantine requirements.
The schools are worried that teachers unhappy that they could not return home this year because of Covid-19 pandemic restrictions might resign over the long separation from their families.
The summer holidays are usually six weeks. Many schools are extending next year’s summer break to eight weeks, and this will allow expats to have five weeks of holiday before returning to spend 21 days in quarantine in Hong Kong.
“This will allow more time for families to travel and complete quarantine while at the same time ensuring we retain the same number of school days,” said Belinda Greer, chief executive officer of the English Schools Foundation (ESF).
The schools are allowed to tweak the length of their breaks provided they meet the Education Bureau’s guideline to have no fewer than 190 school days for whole-day schools in an academic year.
ESF, the biggest international school group in the city, runs 22 kindergartens and schools with about 3,000 employees and more than 18,000 students of more than 75 nationalities.
Greer said it reconfigured the school calendar to shorten the Christmas holiday by two weeks and extend the summer holiday to eight weeks.
Hong Kong has seen almost no local coronavirus infections in months under its zero-Covid strategy, but the mandatory 21 days’ quarantine requirement for travellers from many destinations has effectively shut the city from the outside, even as the rest of the world has begun reopening.
Bernard Chan, convenor of the Executive Council, de facto cabinet of the city’s leader, has acknowledged the unhappiness of expat teachers who have not seen their families for a long time and the schools’ fears of a possible brain drain.
“I think the issue of talent retention is perhaps quite imminent,” he said last Sunday.
Schools with expatriate teachers told the Post that their turnover rates had stayed stable, but they had come up with measures to prevent the possible loss of expatriate teachers missing their families.
A spokeswoman for the Hong Kong International School said the city’s quarantine requirements disrupted its expat teachers’ plans to travel overseas this year.
It will have a longer summer holiday next year, but will shorten other term breaks and convert some non-teaching days to school days.
Rachel Friedmann, principal of Carmel School Hong Kong, a Jewish international school, said it was shortening the Christmas and Lunar New Year holidays to add seven days to next year’s summer holidays, making a total of eight weeks, without affecting the total number of school days.
She said most teachers did not return home this year and “they really want to go and see their families”.
Friedmann said a primary level teacher had resigned to get married in South Africa, where she was from. The teacher felt that with Hong Kong’s three-week quarantine, she would not have enough time for her wedding preparations.
Ruth Benny, founder of international schools consultancy Top Schools HK, said that aside from planning longer summer holidays, some schools eager to retain staff were even prepared to cover their expat teachers’ quarantine hotel costs.
She knew of many teachers who signed two-year contracts in 2019 who did not renew their contracts because they had not returned home for two years.
The pandemic had also made the international schools review their hiring policies, she added.
“It is challenging and costly to bring in teachers from overseas, so we are seeing more interest in recruiting locally,” Benny said.
A spokeswoman for the Education Bureau said it fully understood the desire of the international schools’ foreign teachers to spend their long holidays in their home countries.
But she said the pandemic was still evolving globally and the bureau appealed to school staff to avoid non-essential travel. Those who feel they must travel will have to follow the city’s prevailing quarantine arrangements.
“We will continue to monitor the pandemic situation and review the anti-epidemic measures as appropriate,” she said.