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Shock greets decision to keep primary schools out

The decision caught principals by surprise - and there is uncertainty whether international and ESF schools will have to abide by it

Primary school representatives said yesterday they were shocked and unprepared for the Education and Manpower Bureau's announcement that their classes would remain shut next week.

The suspension of classes at primary schools and kindergartens would continue until further notice because younger children were less able to protect themselves against severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), Secretary for Education and Manpower Arthur Li Kwok-cheung said yesterday.

But Form One and Two students were told to go back to school on Monday, following the resumption of classes in Form Three and above on Tuesday.

Professor Li said primary schools were likely to be reopened in stages but declined to say when the bureau would review the situation or announce a date.

The statement came as a shock to many primary school representatives, who believed they had reached a consensus with the bureau to resume Primary Four to Six classes next Monday and the remaining grades a week later.

School officials and parents said the government's indecision and vague instructions had created chaos.

'We had the understanding from previous meetings with the bureau that we would reopen in stages starting from next week,' said Lam Seung-wan, a school principal and committee member of the Hong Kong Aided Primary School Heads Association. 'I feel really bad about the government's sudden change of mind, as it caught us all off guard.'

Mr Lam said his association was left with little time in which to make new arrangements. Meetings would be held with parents, he said. 'I hope that next time new measures will not be announced only a couple of days before they are supposed to be implemented,' he said.

There was confusion among international schools last night over whether they could resume their primary classes next week. Professor Li declined to answer a question whether the ruling applied to international schools. 'Schools know what we expect,' he said.

His spokeswoman later said the directive applied to all schools. But another spokesman for the bureau last night said international schools were exempt because they followed different curricula.

'As long as international schools make sure that their decision to reopen is supported by staff and parents and that they satisfy hygiene recommendations, we have no objections,' he said.

The English Schools Foundation (ESF)issued an initial statement that its schools would remain closed on Monday. But later it said that a decision would be made today. An ESF teacher said last night: 'It is confusing as teachers have been phoning parents today telling them that the school will reopen on Monday. Now I don't know what will happen.'

Many principals believe the government's decision to keep primary classes shut was prompted by a shortage of thermometers required at schools. Antony Ip Sing-piu, principal of St Edward's Catholic Primary School, contrasted the government's handling of the outbreak with that of the Singapore government. 'Singapore has already ordered 500,000 thermometers while we are still waiting for stock,' Mr Ip said.

Annie Fung Ki Mui-kuen, chairman of the Federation of Parent-Teacher Associations in Central and Western Districts, said the bureau failed to communicate with parents. 'We parents are 100 times more worried about our children than the government is. But the bureau was always out of reach,' she said.

The bureau has advised schools to consider replacing mid-term tests and exams with previous assessments. Places in Form One would be allocated based on results in Primary Five second-term and Primary Six first-term exams, said Cheng Yan-chee, bureau deputy secretary.

The Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust said yesterday it would give schools $100 million for Sars-prevention needs.