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China’s international schools hit by exodus of teachers crushed by COVID curbs

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SHANGHAI — After teaching at an international school in Shanghai for three years, Michael is preparing to terminate his contract and leave, worn down by strict coronavirus measures.

After two years of near-closed borders, onerous health checks and quarantine norms, the decision in early April to lock down China’s trade hub was the last straw.

“It’s gotten to a point where the economic benefits of working here no longer make up for the lack of freedom to come and go,” said the science teacher, who declined to give his full name for privacy reasons.

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Michael is one of hundreds of international teachers heading towards the exit as the COVID-19 pandemic and new education rules transform the working environment in China.

The situation is causing international schools, which have grown rapidly over the past two decades as China opened up to foreign investment and talent, to ring alarm bells.

Some see their very survival at stake, while the quality of education will suffer in the long run.

About 40% of Michael’s peers will quit their mainland jobs this year, up from 30% last year and 15% before the pandemic, says a group of 66 schools in China employing about 3,600 teachers.

And hiring replacements for them is becoming increasingly difficult, said Tom Ulmet, executive director of the group, of the Association of China and Mongolia International Schools (ACAMIS).

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“People around the world have read about the lockdowns and just don’t feel the need to expose themselves to it,” he added.

ENROLLMENT AUTUMN

Aside from the departing teachers, international schools are facing a drop in foreign student enrollments as the COVID restrictions caused many foreign families to leave while others stayed away.

This has changed the composition of the student body in many schools and increased the number of Chinese with at least one foreign-passport parent.

While middle-class parents have long viewed international schools as a way to improve their children’s chances of getting into the world’s top universities, some have avoided emigration in recent years as China has been largely free of COVID.

With fees that can exceed 300,000 yuan (US$44,000) per year, the total annual value of tuition paid to international schools is estimated at 55.4 billion yuan (US$8.2 billion).

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And as of 2019, there were 821 international schools nationwide, according to education website Xinxueshuo.

Some international schools for younger children have also had to grapple with changing regulations as Beijing seeks to limit foreign influence on the education system.

This led to the recent removal of the name of Britain’s Harrow School from an affiliated school in Beijing, while the Westminster School dropped a plan for schools across China.

Hong Kong-based Asia International School Limited, whose subsidiary operates Harrow-affiliated schools in China, and Westminster both declined to comment.

In a flash survey of European companies by the European Chamber of Commerce in May, all respondents from the education sector said that the ever-tightening COVID restrictions had made China a less attractive destination for investment.

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QUALITY CONCERNS

Parents with children in international schools told Reuters they are increasingly concerned about the quality of service due to the restrictions and lockdowns caused by China’s zero-tolerance policy on COVID-19.

Melanie Ham’s daughter, along with her entire cohort, missed the International Baccalaureate (IB) exams in May after lockdown in Shanghai delayed delivery of overseas questionnaires for the IB and Advanced Placement (AP) exams.

Her daughter’s school is trying its best, Ham said, but she’s still worried about the future. “I think they’re just scraping with everything they can in terms of resources, planning and emotional energy.”

Such suffering spelled the death knell for some schools in southern China, said Aleksa Moss, head of early education at an international school in the city of Guangzhou.

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“A few of the lower international and bilingual schools have closed here,” she said, adding, “I’m sure it’s happening in Shanghai and Beijing.”

However, the turmoil is fueling demand for teachers who have chosen to stay.

Jessica, a middle school teacher with nearly 20 years of experience in China, said she was inundated with interview requests at a recent online job fair.

“I was offered so much money,” she said, adding that a school in the capital Beijing had a starting base salary of more than 50,000 yuan ($7,361) a month. ($1=6.7604 Chinese Renminbi Yuan)

(Reporting by Casey Hall; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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