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China's international schools: the implications of the coronavirus by Stephanie Quayle

As international and private schools in China begin to carefully and, in a phased approach, re-open their doors to students, there are several key concerns and challenges that they are now facing:

  1. Most schools in China have prepared their re-opening plans. These can include: systems limiting campus access, such as temperature checks and green QR health codes; heightened cleaning and sanitising regimes; systems to manage pupil gatherings, such as staggered dining and online assemblies broadcast to classrooms; protocols for managing suspected virus cases during the school day; and changes to school transport plans. 
  2. Despite the significant efforts of teachers, pupils and their parents, online learning, regardless of how well it is planned and executed, cannot replicate the classroom experience. Many experiences and opportunities will have been missed.   
  3. Public exams have been cancelled, but some schools are particularly concerned for their current year 10 and year 12 students (grades 9 and 11 i.e. the first year of International GCSE and the first year of International A levels or IB Diploma programme). In China, parents of younger primary age children can be just as concerned about lost learning in the earlier years, as parents with older students facing exams.
  4. Parents are asking schools about how they intend to address any gaps in learning when the school eventually re-opens. They want to know if schools might be able to extend their school day or deliver weekend lessons. Some parents are asking their schools to extend the school year or offer free summer schools to their students.   
  5. Schools are learning to challenge fake news about their competitors. Some parents make claims about what other schools are doing; but when checked, the claims often prove inaccurate.
  6. Concerns for the wellbeing of students, staff, and the wider school community will continue. There may be a need for schools to support those who have felt particularly isolated and lonely, those who may have financial worries, those who will have medical concerns and a new fear of becoming ill, those who are mourning the death of a loved one whose funeral they are unable to attend, those who have missed a significant family event such as a postponed wedding, a deferred graduation ceremony, and even a cancelled holiday.
  7. For an extended period, there will still be limited opportunities to mix and socialise and this too will have an impact on people’s wellbeing. Children will continue to be isolated as restrictions remain. So much of the non-academic enriching curriculum, such as school productions and sports competitions which are at the centre of developing ‘the whole child’, may be missing for a time as some restrictions remain in place. Some parents are asking for a narrower focus on the academic curriculum when schools reopen.
  8. Some parents are seeking a rebate on this year’s tuition fees, or a freeze or reduction in next year’s fees. Schools may also be considering one-off bursaries for families who are experiencing temporary financial difficulty.
  9. There may be a large and permanent impact on the economy, and schools are likening the coronavirus to the financial crash of 2008. That crisis saw a significant reduction in demand for student places in the school year following the crash. Some school leaders are questioning how many families will still be able to afford premium international and private school fees. However, as a result of the coronavirus, some Chinese families may be more cautious about sending their child to an overseas boarding school, preferring to keep their child with them in China, sending them to their local international or private school instead.
  10. The regulations and licensing arrangements for Chinese private kindergartens require them to invoice for their kindergarten provision on a monthly basis. This means that private kindergartens have not been permitted to charge fees for the months of February, March and now April. With the phased reopening of schools, it is most likely that the youngest children will be the last to return. As a result, these schools may not be able to charge families for the months of May or June either. This will have significant financial implications for the private kindergarten sector.
  11. There is no doubt that most schools will be giving serious consideration to their education continuity plans for the future. Many schools are already exploring the online platforms that work best for them, and developing systems, structures and practices to ensure that all members of their school community are well placed should there be any form of disruption to learning in the future.
  12. There may be a fall in the supply of international teachers worldwide. Teachers may be less willing to live so far from their home country and family, having experienced an extended period in which borders have been closed.  
  13. There are a few rays of hope for the international schools in China. As the coronavirus is now a global pandemic, there is a view that China may be well positioned to realise a faster recovery than many other regions in the world. Expatriate teachers may take reassurance from how well China has been able to contain the spread of the virus.
  14. Many international schools may have been perceived as being relatively successful in delivering well-structured online learning during the shutdowns. They may be seen as a dependable alternative during any future crises.

For now, it is too early to tell how these implications of the coronavirus will impact the demand for enrolment next year. ISC Research will be closely and constantly tracking this impact and the prospects for international and private schools. We will continue to keep all international schools informed.

Stephanie Quayle is the East Asia Consultant and Field Researcher for ISC Research. Follow Stephanie on LinkedIn  

For more information on the world’s international schools, contact ISC Research at enquiries@iscresearch.com