Parents in Japan and Hong Kong struggle as schools shut

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A primary school student plays in a public park in Hong KongImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
A child plays in a playground of a public housing estate in Hong Kong while wearing a mask as a precautionary measure against the spread of the coronavirus

Costs could grow for parents in Japan and Hong Kong, with schools shutting until April because of the coronavirus.

Hong Kong schools are already facing pressure to refund fees as children are forced to stay at home.

Schools there have been closed since late January and will remain closed until at least 20 April.

On Thursday, Japan made a similar move, asking schools to shut for two weeks to contain the virus.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe requested that schools close, but some could choose to remain open or delay their closure.

Mr Abe said the next two weeks were critical to control the spread of the virus and "stem the risk of many children and teachers becoming infected through gathering for long hours every day".

Parents on social media criticised the decision as one that could keep wage earners at home. But the government said it would work with companies.

"We will continue to urge public services and private companies to make it easier for people to take time off," Japan's chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, told a news conference on Friday.

Offices and businesses in both Hong Kong and Japan have asked many employees to work from home. But parents have found working from home and balancing online classes for their children difficult.

Singapore and South Korea have so far kept schools open, using extensive screening, checking temperatures and requiring parents to test children at home.

One Hong Kong-based expatriate mother of two girls, aged three and seven, told the BBC she decided to extend a holiday in her home country of Japan and try home schooling because of the school closures in Hong Kong. But her husband was denied a request to work from home in Japan and remained in Hong Kong.

"Hence the kids have been apart from their father for one-and-a-half months now," she said.

But with Japanese schools now closed, it's likely she will head back to Hong Kong.

"What a surprise decision from the Japanese government," she said. "We've decided to go back to HK next week.

"Since there is no school, it does not really make sense to stay in Japan while being apart from my husband."

However, returning to Hong Kong has raised concerns of a possible quarantine period of 14 days.

The financial hit has been hard, as the international school that her seven-year-old attends in Hong Kong has not refunded tuition fees, while the pre-nursery attended by her three-year-old has also denied her a refund. However, a bus service has refunded 25% of her transport fees.

"We had to pay many activities outside school. Most of them gave credits or offered make-up classes, but it's not realistic to consume all missed class make-ups, given the amount of missed classes. It's very frustrating."

Matthew Mohrbach is a teacher at an international school in Hong Kong and defends the non-refunding of school fees, as "learning has not stopped".

"We have not missed a single lesson and teachers are teaching their full-timetables via video sharing platforms in combination with Google Classroom. We still hold staff meetings, department meetings and outside-of-school sessions for students in-need,'' he said.

Tuition and fees for the American School Hong Kong start at HK$168,000 (£16,700) for grades 1 to 4 and rise steadily through the grades. The Hong Kong International School starts in primary ages at HK$220,600 and rises to HK$252,200 for grade 12.

The British Kellett school starts at HK$172,600 in primary and runs to HK$220,800 for senior school.

The Hong Kong government said in its budget on Wednesday that all residents would receive a one-time HK$10,000 payment to cushion the hit to the economy from the virus containment measures.

Hong Kong's private and state schools are offering online lessons or emailed lesson worksheets, according to Ruth Benny, who runs education consultancy topschools (HK).

Mrs Benny has taken her senior school daughter from Hong Kong to London to prepare for university admission tests, which are only scheduled at certain times of the year.

"It was not something we did lightly, but the school year has already been massively disrupted," Mrs Benny said.