HONG KONG — Insurance agent Emily Kwong, 30, is struggling to home-school her five-year-old daughter and is worried she has learned nothing due to Hong Kong’s strict coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) restrictions that have forced toddlers and teens into online classes.

New plans to close schools early in March are “disturbing the whole year,” Ms. Kwong said, echoing concerns from parents and teachers in the global financial hub worried about their children’s mental health and education.

“Just with the iPAD, the Zoom, for the whole two years… next year she will be in Year 1, and she will have learned nothing from the last two years,” Ms. Kwong said.

For many children, the absence of friends and a physical space to learn is adding to anxiety.

“The kids are broken. I absolutely feel for them, there is nothing left in them,” said a teacher at an international school, who declined to be identified as they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Hong Kong is pursuing a “dynamic zero COVID” strategy similar to mainland China, aiming to eradicate any outbreaks at all costs instead of trying to live with the virus. Since the start of February, daily infections have surged around 70 times.

The move to let all students start their summer holidays in March to allow campuses to be used as testing and vaccination sites has triggered a backlash.

Belinda Greer, chief executive of the English Schools Foundation which has 18,000 pupils across 22 schools, met Education Bureau (EDB) officials on Wednesday and said she had relayed concerns and was working to minimize disruption.

For pupils taking external exams this year, there would be some flexibility, she added.

“EDB has signaled that they have taken on board our perspective and we will continue to work with them to agree the best way forward,” Ms. Greer said.

The holiday break will run until April 17, with the last day of the school year pushed back to August, disrupting teaching and learning.

There are around 900,000 pupils out of school more than two years after the pandemic started in 2020.

Many families in the Chinese-ruled territory live in tiny, high-rise apartments with several people over three generations, making online learning particularly difficult, with sometimes patchy WiFi connections.

The government said on Tuesday that mass testing for the city’s 7.4 million people would start in March.

The city has already reported COVID-related deaths of children as young as 11 months, exacerbating worries among families.

This week an infected 11-month-old was made to isolate by herself in hospital despite pleas from her parents to accompany her.

“As soon as we saw the news of the kid separation. I said, ‘I am done,’” said Sofia, a mother of two.

The family plans to leave the city next week and relocate to Singapore in June.

“The aim for zero cases here, it’s absurd,” she said. “We cannot get to zero. It plays on peoples’ minds — why are we staying here?” — Farah Master/Reuters