Omicron measures add to fears of international isolation

After just under six months of regular face-to-face teaching, Hong Kong’s universities are reverting to online or hybrid classes as it faces a major surge of the Omicron coronavirus variant.

But while the hope is that the Omicron wave will die down quickly as it has done elsewhere, universities fear that longer term damage will be caused to its universities’ highly international outlook if tougher restrictions force it into relative international ‘isolation’ for a limited period.

The shift back to online comes as a blow as Hong Kong’s universities have had to endure much longer periods of shutdowns and shift to online learning than elsewhere due to the 2019 to 2020 protests in the city which had forced campus closures. It also saw the departure of many foreign students, even before the COVID-19 related shutdowns in 2020-21.

Universities were only able to resume limited physical classes more regularly, with social distancing measures in place, from October 2021 as Hong Kong successfully contained four waves of COVID-19.

However, from over 10 cases a day at the beginning of February, confirmed Omicron cases have hit more than 6,000 a day this week, with researchers at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) projecting they will not peak until late March or early April.

“With some of our undergraduate students having very limited opportunities for face-to-face learning throughout their undergraduate experience since 2019, it has come as a blow to have to go back to online teaching,” said a lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK).

“This cohort has really faced a lot of disruption and uncertainty.”

“I was ecstatic that I could go back to face-to-face classes. I was so happy,” said HKU Emeritus Professor Gerard Postiglione, who resumed teaching this month after a one-semester teaching break.

“Then we got an email that said they’re going to delay the semester by two weeks. Then of course, everything went crazy,” he said, noting the rapid rise of Omicron cases in the city.

“We thought we were moving closer to normality with zero COVID cases over a three-month period. And then we hit up a big bump in the road, and now we’ve got to wait and see,” Postiglione told University World News.

Already hospitals in the city have been overwhelmed and pictures flashed around the world of patients on gurneys out in the open in rain and near-freezing conditions.

In February, Chinese President Xi Jinping ordered Hong Kong to make tackling the outbreak its “overriding mission”, with a major testing regime for the entire population planned in the coming weeks, and schools also shut.

Fears for international status

Some 90% of flights in and out of Hong Kong have been suspended and restrictions brought in on visitors from 90 countries, including the United Kingdom and United States.

Some fear that if Hong Kong faces prolonged restrictions, it will wreak havoc on the number of international students coming to the city’s universities. Some foreign students have opted to return home.

“This is not good news for a university that wants to sustain itself as the most international university in the world,” Postiglione noted, pointing to HKU’s first-place position in recent global rankings of the most international universities.

HKU expected to start the semester in February with face-to-face classes and social distancing for classes with fewer than 30 students, as was the case from October 2021 until the end of the year. It has now moved classes online and has strict controls in place with only those with vaccine passports allowed to enter the campus.

“Academic staff have to show proof of double vaccinations, or triple if you have it, at the entrances to the university,” Postiglione said.

University notices went out in January from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) and Hong Kong Baptist University and CUHK, moving all classes online even before the start of the semester on 8 February, while other universities in Hong Kong announced hybrid classes.

Disruption as students told to leave campus residences

While academics described the move online as relatively smooth, with experience already built up in teaching in this mode in the past three years, students faced other disruptions on campus.

Hong Kong is following mainland China’s strict COVID-19 ‘zero tolerance’ policy. Infected residents cannot be isolated at home, even if they have mild or no symptoms, under the city’s ‘dynamic zero-infection strategy’. They must go to government-approved accommodation or hotels.

As the Omicron caseload rocketed, at short notice in mid-February at least five universities in Hong Kong told students residing on campus to ‘return home’ “as a precautionary measure”. CUHK was the first to tell students to leave student residences, giving them just days to leave.

Foreign students were allowed to remain, as were students from mainland China who were unable to return home due to Beijing-imposed restrictions on people coming from Hong Kong to contain the spread of Omicron.

Other universities said they would ‘encourage’ students to leave but would not enforce the measure. At HKU students residing on campus were told to make a choice, either leave or stay on without being able to leave the building.

CUHK said foreign students and other students who are granted permission to stay on campus are “required to live exclusively in their dormitory” and are not allowed to go home during the weekends. In case of any violations, students will be prohibited from entering their dormitory and their fees will not be reimbursed, the university said in a communication to students.

CUHK said accommodation fees would be refunded to students on a pro rata basis. The move came amid talk that with Omicron cases rocketing and the Hong Kong government looking for accommodation to isolate cases, university accommodation could be brought into use for this purpose, as has been the case elsewhere in Asia, including Singapore in 2020.

Some students have a choice

Lingnan University, a smaller liberal arts university, took a different approach. “We encourage our students to stay on campus. We consider it safe enough because 80% to 85% of our students have had two jabs already,” Joshua Ka-ho Mok, vice-president of Lingnan University, told University World News.

Lingnan has a large number of students from mainland China. “With the recent rise in local infections, some of them may choose to go back to the mainland, but our hostel occupancy was 90% to 93% this week,” said Mok on 15 February as the university switched to hybrid learning, with lecturers teaching in-person on campus.

“We are allowing students to choose – if they feel comfortable, they can come on site,” he said.

A strict zero-COVID policy similar to China, but without the complete ban on international visitors, had kept infections low in Hong Kong for two years. But now Hong Kong is more closely following China’s policies with stricter international controls. Several universities in Hong Kong reported fewer mainland students this semester compared to the previous semester.

“But we are not like China. We are an international city with very international universities. I can’t see this status being maintained if the current [COVID] policies continue for longer than this semester,” one academic at HKU noted.

Another pointed out: “We have not had a single international academic visitor to the university in almost two years due to COVID restrictions. And now the restrictions have been tightened again. This bodes ill for us as an international city.”