By Casey Hall
SHANGHAI (Reuters) - After teaching for three years at an international school in Shanghai, Michael is preparing to break his contract and leave, worn down by stringent measures against the coronavirus.
Following two years of nearly-shut borders, onerous health checks and quarantine norms, a decision at the beginning of April to lock down China’s commercial centre proved the last straw for the 35-year-old.
"It has reached a point where the economic benefits of working here don’t make up for the lack of freedom to come and go," the science teacher said, declining to give his full name for reasons of privacy.
Michael is one of hundreds of international teachers heading for the exits as the COVID-19 pandemic and new rules on education reshape the working environment in China.
The situation is prompting international schools that proliferated over the past two decades, as China opened up to foreign investment and talent, to sound warning bells.
Some find their survival is now on the line, while the quality of education stands to suffer in the long run.
About 40% of Michael's peers will leave mainland jobs this year, up from 30% last year and 15% before the pandemic, says a group of 66 schools in China that employs about 3,600 teachers.
And hiring replacements for them is getting harder, said Tom Ulmet, executive director of the group, the Association of China and Mongolia International Schools (ACAMIS).
"People around the world have been reading about the lockdowns and just don't feel a need to subject themselves to that," he added.
Apart from the departing teachers, international schools face a drop in foreign student enrolment as the COVID curbs led many foreign families to leave, while others stay away.
This has changed the make-up of the student body in many schools, boosting the numbers of Chinese with at least one parent holding a foreign passport.
While middle-class parents long saw international schools as a way to improve their children's chances of winning a place at top global universities, some have avoided emigrating in recent years as China was largely free of COVID.
With fees that can exceed 300,000 yuan ($44,000) a year, the total annual value of tuition paid to international schools is estimated to be 55.4 billion yuan ($8.2 billion).
And international schools nationwide numbered 821 by 2019, says education website Xinxueshuo.
Some international schools for younger children have also had to grapple with changing regulations, as Beijing moves to limit foreign influence in the education system.
That resulted in the recent removal of the name of Britain's Harrow School from an affiliated school in Beijing, while Westminster School dropped a plan for schools around China.
Both Hong Kong-based Asia International School Limited, whose subsidiary operates Harrow-affiliated schools in China, and Westminster declined to comment.
In a May flash poll of European businesses by the European Chamber of Commerce, all respondents from the education sector said increasingly tough COVID curbs had made China a less attractive destination for investment.
Parents with children at international schools told Reuters they were increasingly concerned about the quality on offer because of the strictures and the lockdowns caused by China's zero-tolerance policy on COVID-19.
Melanie Ham's daughter missed International Baccalaureate (IB) exams in May, along with her entire cohort, after the Shanghai lockdown held up delivery of question papers arriving from overseas for the IB and Advanced Placement (AP) exams.
Her daughter's school was trying its best, Ham said, but she was still worried about the future. "I think they're just scraping by with whatever they can, as far as resources and planning and emotional energy (are concerned)."
Such woes meant the death knell for some schools in southern China, said Aleksa Moss, the head of early learning at an international school in the city of Guangzhou.
"A couple of the lower-tier international and bilingual schools closed down here," she said, adding, "I'm sure it’s happening in Shanghai and Beijing."
The turmoil is fuelling demand for teachers who have opted to stay on, however.
Jessica, a middle school teacher with almost 20 years of experience in China, said she was flooded with interview requests at a recent online jobs fair.
"I was offered so much money," she said, adding that one school in the capital, Beijing, dangled a base starting salary of more than 50,000 yuan ($7,361) a month.
($1=6.7604 Chinese yuan renminbi)
(Reporting by Casey Hall; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)