• In Hubei province, kindergartens are innovating, as lockdown measures mean they're not allowed to reopen for children.
  • Facing economic adversity, a chain of 8 private kindergartens has turned into a food-delivery service.
  • The story is the same across China, with private kindergartens setting up as kitchens, clothes shops and other alternative enterprises to stay afloat.

At a newly reopened kindergarten in Shanghai, teachers are struggling to adjust to a strict and slightly surreal new morning routine.

Arriving in small groups to maintain social distancing, the preschoolers have to complete three temperature checks, a bag search, and two rounds of hand-washing before classes begin. It often takes staff over 30 minutes to shepherd all the students from the school gate to the classroom.

To Liu Liqun, however, Shanghai’s stressed teachers appear incredibly fortunate.

Based over 1,000 kilometers to the west, Liu runs a chain of eight private kindergartens in the central Hubei province — all of which remain firmly shut, as local authorities take a cautious approach to easing virus-control measures.

After nearly five months with no classes — and no tuition fees — the 48-year-old and her staff have been forced to put down their picture books and pick up woks and knives in a desperate attempt to make ends meet.

The kindergarten firm — Hubei Xinjia Education Company — has temporarily transformed itself into Xinjia Youxiang, a food-delivery service that accepts orders through a mini-program on social app WeChat.

Now, Liu begins each day by checking her customers’ preferences on the app before heading to the school kitchens to oversee her team of educators-turned-chefs. For the upcoming Dragon Boat Festival, the teachers are making their own recipe for traditional rice dumplings, she says.

The new venture is far from an ideal fallback, but Liu hopes it can save the jobs of her 285 employees. Her company’s financial situation could hardly be grimmer, she tells Sixth Tone.

We’ve had zero income over the past four months.

—- Liu Liqun, director

“We’ve had zero income over the past four months,” she says. “But, meanwhile, we’ve still had to pay rent, basic wages and social insurance for our teachers, and buy preventive supplies such as masks and disinfectant. We’re under huge financial pressure.”

Liu’s company is one of many Chinese kindergartens forced to seek alternative income streams, as the country’s massive private education industry faces an unprecedented cash crunch.

Private kindergartens have mushroomed in Chinese cities over recent decades to cater to the huge demand for preschool education. As of 2018, there were 165,000 private preschools teaching more than 26 million children, around 56% of the country’s total kindergarten students, according to government figures.

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A girl enters a kindergarten in Jinan, Shandong province, June 8, 2020.
Image: Hao Xincheng/People Visual

But the pandemic has plunged the industry into crisis. Kindergartens across the country were shut down in late January and remained closed for months, causing large-scale losses in revenue. The Ministry of Education, however, banned schools from collecting tuition fees in advance in April.

As of the end of May, 70% of schools don’t have enough funds to maintain their operations, according to an ongoing survey of over 1,000 private kindergartens by education investment consultancy Zhongjiaotouyan. Many respondents reported having to cut employees’ salaries, apply for bank loans, or take other emergency measures to stay afloat.

In a separate survey of 600 private kindergarten faculties conducted by Zhongjiaotouyan, meanwhile, over 50% of teachers said they’d earned no income at all during the pandemic and had seen colleagues quit as a result.

It was the prospect of a mass staff exodus that motivated Liu to find another way of making money. Hubei Xinjia was under even more pressure than most of its competitors, having invested over 2 million yuan ($290,000) to open a new school just months before the pandemic emerged.

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A kindergarten staff member sells handmade desserts and snacks outside campus in Zhengzhou, Henan province, June 4, 2020.
Image: People Visual

“Our labor union has dealt with a couple of cases where our teachers wanted to resign, too,” says Liu. “Resignations could have helped relieve our financial pressure, but I wanted them to stay with us during this difficult time. The outflow of talent would be a huge loss for our company in the long run.”

As cities in Hubei province began easing their lockdown policies in late March, Liu and her teachers began furiously brainstorming potential business ideas, eventually settling on food delivery as the best option.

“During the day, we kept in touch with the parents to check on our students’ progress, and then at night all the teachers went online for a discussion,” says Liu. “We stayed up two whole nights to create a plan.”

The teachers decided to draw on the schools’ existing food suppliers, as the canteens prepare meals for over 2,000 students on an average school day. Then, they started organizing themselves: The willing cooks among them became kitchen staff; those who owned their own cars handled the deliveries; and the social media addicts took care of marketing.

By mid-May, the new business was ready to launch. “We only sold about 40 dishes on the first day, and most of the orders were placed by our faculty,” says Liu. “But we knew we had to soldier on, as it was the only way to save ourselves.” By June, their daily sales had increased to 500.

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Hubei Xinjia staff members check and deliver food in Jingzhou, Hubei province, 2020.
Image: Hubei Xinjia

Hubei Xinjia isn’t the only kindergarten giving catering a go. One preschool in Hubei’s provincial capital Wuhan opened a barbecue restaurant on its premises, with diners sitting among the slides and seesaws. Another school in the eastern Shandong province has been selling breakfast buns and crawfish dinners.

Some of these makeshift businesses are now starting to close, as local governments across China gradually allow kindergartens to resume classes. In May, Shanghai announced private kindergartens would be allowed to reopen from June 2, providing they first gain approval from local authorities.

Staff at the Xuhui campus of the Montessori School of Shanghai tell Sixth Tone they received a permit to reopen June 1, allowing the school to start lessons the very next day.

“It was amazing. Just a day before, the campus had been very empty and quiet. … The next day, there were children playing,” says Olena Naumenko, director of the Xuhui campus. “On the first day, it was very emotional. It’s not the same as seeing them online.”

Some parents, however, remain reluctant to let their kids go back to school. During the first week, about 70 students — half the usual number — came back to the Xuhui campus.

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A teacher and students at the Xuhui campus of the Montessori School of Shanghai, June 2, 2020.
Image: Staff of Montessori

“Some parents are very honest, saying, ‘We trust you, but we’re a little bit worried,’” says Naumenko. “This is a very special transition period. Parents also want to observe and wait till they feel it’s more secure.”

The school also has to comply with the city’s strict virus-control policies, as Chinese authorities try to avoid a second wave of infections. Exhaustive health checks have become a part of life on campus.

A permanent observation area has also been set up on campus, where students can be isolated as soon as they show any signs of ill health. If a child shows signs of a fever, nurses come to the classroom in full protective gear to check every child’s health condition.

The tuition fees we receive are not even enough to cover the rent.

—- Xie, principal

Though the reopening has given staff hope, the school’s recovery is at an early and uncertain stage. Yet the Shanghai kindergarten — a prestigious institution that charges over 13,500 yuan per month for tuition — is in a better position than most. Other schools tell Sixth Tone they’ve been operating at a loss since resuming classes.

A principal surnamed Xie at a private kindergarten in the southwestern Sichuan province tells Sixth Tone 70% of its 230 students have returned to classes. With the school charging monthly fees of just 500 yuan, the lack of students is a serious issue.

“We could barely break even before the pandemic,” says Xie, who declined to give her full name for privacy reasons. The local government has reduced teachers’ social insurance and provided the school with subsidies between February and April, but the measures have only had a limited impact. “(Now) the tuition fees we receive are not even enough to cover the rent. We still don’t have any money to pay the teachers,” Xie adds.

Support policies for private schools vary from province to province. While the Montessori School of Shanghai has been able to apply for a three-month rent waiver, some kindergartens haven’t received notice of any such policies.

Su Xiaojun, a kindergarten principal and member of an association for privately run educational institutions in the northwestern Gansu province, says local schools are appealing to the government to take more proactive measures to help them through the crisis, such as reducing rent, property fees, and utility charges.

“If the private kindergartens can’t survive the pandemic, it’ll cause huge disruptions to the education of preschool children,” says Su.

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A principal sells kids clothing outside a private kindergarten, which has been closed for over four months, in Zhengzhou, Henan province, June 3, 2020.
Image: People Visual

Back in Hubei, director Liu simply hopes the local government will soon allow her to bring her experiment in online catering to an end. The signs, however, aren’t looking positive.

“We still haven’t received any news regarding when we can reopen,” says Liu. “Summer vacation is coming, which means we might be closed until September.”

If the private kindergartens can’t survive the pandemic, it’ll cause huge disruptions to the education of preschool children.

—- Xu Xiaojun, principal

For Hubei Xinjia employees like Li Ting, a further three-month delay would be a bitter blow. Since the school launched its catering service, she’s been working 14-hour days at the kitchens as a school medical officer, arriving at 6 a.m. to disinfect the rooms and equipment and staying until 8 p.m. to make sure everything is spotless after the cooks have left.

Li, however, says she doesn’t mind the long hours, since she needs the money. “During the epidemic, my whole family relied just on my basic wage of around 1,500 yuan, which is far below our monthly expenditure of 4,000 yuan,” says Li. “To me, this is a precious work opportunity.”

Li’s husband, who lost his sales job at a local manufacturer earlier this year, is also helping Hubei Xinjia deliver food and promote its business online. The two managed to earn 3,000 yuan each in May, giving them some relief after months of relying on their savings.

If the business continues to improve, they hope to save enough money to buy a new computer for their 15-year-old twin sons — or at least some new clothes.

“They’ve grown much taller this year, and now only their father’s outfits fit them,” says Li. “I haven’t bought them anything over the past six months. As their mother, I feel very sorry about it.”

Additional reporting: Luo Meihan and Liu Siqi; editor: Dominic Morgan.