When Grace and her family decided to move to Hong Kong last November, their thoughts were focused on more than the prosperous career the city could offer. For the mother of three and her husband Jim, the first priority lay with how the community could support their nine-year-old daughter, who has a rare genetic disorder. Judy – not her real name – suffers from “muenke syndrome” which has left her with a variety of challenges, including hearing loss and learning difficulties. Hopes were initially high for the Australian family when they found out some of the international schools in Hong Kong work alongside therapy clinics, allowing children to learn like other students with the help of therapists directly in classes. “We moved here because our daughter could access better services,” Grace said. “In Australia, schools are unable to arrange any special classes like here, and I have been home-schooling my daughter since she’s five. Here, she can learn like other kids.” Grace could see the difference proper therapy made. For example, Judy could hardly write a word properly, but with the help of therapists is now learning to dictate through voice note or typing, and is able to learn together with other kids in school. But the coronavirus pandemic has created uncertainty for the family, with all public and international schools closed until April 20 at least. As a result, companies that provide private therapy services for children with special educational needs (SEN) are struggling to survive like many other industries in the city. Clinics for some of these therapy centres remain open, but many of the international students have returned home, while some have opted against using public transport to get to the therapy. Parents such as Zoe Blaauw, a permanent resident, is an exception. The British mother could not contemplate the loss of private therapy services for Kara, her four-year-old daughter. I could hardly imagine children with special needs missing their therapy sections. Their progress would go backward Zoe Blaauw The young girl was born prematurely at only 32 weeks, and was diagnosed with cerebral palsy – a brain impairment that causes movement disorders. But public services could only provide limited services from the age of two, with only five hours of therapy a month. “We are lucky that we brought her to therapy when she was just 10 months old, and from there, we saw her progress, with better communication skills, and she is able to follow instructions to move,” Blaauw said. “We are not blaming the government services, but amid the coronavirus, their services have stopped as well, and I could hardly imagine children with special needs missing their therapy sections. Their progress would go backward.” So, for the two months without school and outings, the 34-year-old has taken her daughter to the therapy clinic, doing a one-on-one session twice a week, including muscle training and other exercises. “We struggle a bit, as the outbreak is severe, but when we see Kara talking cheerfully, we know she’s making progress,” she said. “Without these therapies, we might not stay in this city.” Blaauw said many expats might have opted to return home if Hong Kong did not have the right services for children with special educational needs. “For families like us, we know what our priorities are,” she said. Businesses proving these special services have started to appear in the past decade in Hong Kong, with seven to eight companies taking the lead to fill the gap for families that could afford to pay rather than wait for public services. Parents of special needs children say HK$200,000 threshold for new trust too high Official statistics show there were more than 57,000 students with special needs enrolled in either mainstream funded schools, the 61 aided special schools, or international schools in the city in 2018-19. While some parents seek help through queuing for therapy services provided by the Social Welfare Department and the Department of Health, more than 6,000 families look to the private sector and international schools, according to Spot, an interdisciplinary therapy centre. They include English-speaking families and expats families. “The government has a long waiting list for services, and if we were to close as an industry, it would be a significant loss to families and the community,” said Breanna Crockett, the managing director and paediatric occupational therapist who also runs the centre. For companies such as Spot, parents pay about HK$1,250 for an hour’s session, while they have costs such as rental expenses for the three clinics on Hong Kong Island, and salaries for the 40 specialists they recruited. “We rely on our own as private business, but after severely suffering from the protests last year and the pandemic now, this is the first time we seek help from the government,” Crockett said, suggesting many businesses in the education sector, such as private kindergartens and school bus firms, had received subsidies. “Without the subsidies, some of the service providers might not be able to sustain until school reopens in the near future,” she added.