Drivers and minders on Hong Kong school buses have been left unpaid and threatening to quit, operators warned on Thursday, their income cut off because of class suspensions aimed at curbing the coronavirus outbreak. That came a day after the government announced a one-off subsidy for school bus companies – between HK$10,000 (US$1,285) and HK$20,000 per bus – as part of a HK$30 billion relief package for industries hit hard by the contagion. A separate subsidy of more than HK$160 million was also set aside by the Education Bureau for kindergartens struggling financially, and primary and secondary schools looking to strengthen anti-infection measures such as buying surgical masks and cleaning items. But bus operators said the subsidies were not enough, while school heads said that even with the cash injection they would struggle to get their hands on masks. Three major associations which between them represent about 90 per cent of workers in the 11,000-strong school bus sector said up to 5,500 school buses had been left idle, while many parents had demanded refunds on fares after classes were suspended from February 3. Tam Wai-chiu, director of the Motor Transport Workers General Union’s non-franchised bus branch, said the sector expected class suspensions to extend beyond March, but urged parents and schools to keep the industry running by paying fares as usual. “We can’t pay our employees if we can’t collect any money,” he said. “Past experience shows summer holidays often get shortened after classes are cancelled for a long period. If that’s so, our sector will provide free school bus services during the extra class period.” Tam said the government’s subsidy was barely enough to cover companies’ expenses, as some drivers, and the minders who are required to sit on each trip with the children, planned to quit their jobs. “A government subsidy of up to HK$20,000 per bus is merely a drop in the bucket,” he said, adding that monthly expenses for each school bus could be up to HK$60,000. An owner of a bus company with a fleet of 20, who only gave her surname She, said income was as much as HK$1 million per month, but expenses including monthly salary for 60 drivers and minders, plus the costs of petrol, parking and repayments on the vehicles could amount to HK$900,000. “I have already paid the [drivers’ and minders’] salaries in January ... but there is no more money in our account. I’m afraid and don’t know what to do,” she said. A school bus driver who has worked for more than 30 years, surnamed Fung, said he had not been able to work and had not received any salary in February. He said his monthly salary used to be up to HK$18,000 a month. Lawmakers to rush HK$30 billion Covid-19 relief package through Legco “I have had to borrow money from my relatives and friends,” Fung said. “My family of four needs [my job] to support them.” Rachel Tong Chung-yee, spokeswoman for concern group Parents United, said parents could share part of the loss, but school bus companies should at least provide a discount. The Education Bureau said in a reply on Thursday that school bus services are operated commercially by private companies, and so services and fees should be discussed between operators and schools or parents. Meanwhile, each local and international school in the city was set to receive a subsidy ranging from HK$10,000 to HK$25,000, depending on their size and type, for anti-epidemic measures. Kindergartens could get an extra handout of up to HK$160,000 each to tackle financial problems arising from students withdrawing, with many parents refusing to pay tuition fees in full. Principals the Post spoke to said they welcomed the bureau’s new measures, but said they still faced challenges in finding steady supplies of masks. Chairman of the Hong Kong Association of the Heads of Secondary Schools Teddy Tang Chun-keung said his school – HKMA KS Lo College, in Tin Shui Wai – would use the subsidy to battle potential infection, such as providing alcohol hand rub for each class. He said his school had about 1,500 masks in stock – to supply about 750 students – and was still finding ways to buy new batches before classes resume. A survey conducted over the past week by the Hong Kong Aided Primary School Heads Association and the Subsidised Primary Schools Council found that, of more than 360 primary schools surveyed, more than 80 per cent said their current stock of masks could last less than three days if classes resumed. So Ping-fai, principal of Tin Shui Wai Methodist Primary School and a consultant at the council, said masks in stock at his school would only last a day or two if every student used two masks each day. “It’s good to have [an extra subsidy], but there are other issues, as some schools which had previously ordered masks were told their booking was delayed or even cancelled,” he said. Kindergarten principal and vice-president of the Professional Teachers’ Union Elaine Kwan Shuk-ling said the subsidy could barely help some kindergartens, which have bigger problems than mask supply. “At some kindergartens more than half of pupils have withdrawn, which would pose more difficulties in the operation,” she said. She said she hoped the Education Bureau would provide more special and flexible arrangements for individual kindergartens which still face financial issues after the subsidy.