Smaller classes, shorter days and parental pick up at the school gate instead of a crowded journey on public transport — for some urban Chinese children, a return to school has meant better conditions than before the epidemic.
While nearly all of China’s provinces have now resumed some classes, big cities were slowest to respond, fearing a second wave of infection.
This week, after a delay of more than two months, Beijing, Shanghai and other cities reopened schools for exam-year students, with some crucial differences designed to avoid the spread of the virus.
Beijing now makes schools close at 3.30pm, a relief to students used to staying late at night to cram and eating dinner at school. Classes are now capped at 20 students rather than 30, said Shirley Wu and Maya Ting, both 18-year-old students at Beijing’s sought-after Chenjinglun Middle School.
“The teaching environment has improved compared to before the epidemic because classes are smaller,” said Ms Ting. “My parents are very glad I’m back at school. It means I’m not at home,” added Ms Wu.
The reopening of schools in China, where new daily cases are officially in the double digits, is part of the government-declared victory over Covid-19. As the principal of one Beijing school said in a motivational speech to teachers on Sunday: “In most states in the US, schools will only reopen in the autumn or later. The fact that we are able to open tomorrow says a lot.”
Yet debate over contagion in schools is far from settled. A paper published in the Lancet, using data from Shenzhen, found there was no marked difference in the likelihood of infection in children compared with adults, although they were less likely to suffer severe symptoms. This contradicted previous evidence. Peer-reviewed studies have suggested that school closures have everything from a minor to a moderate impact on transmission. They could even worsen the impact of epidemics — if childcare is not available for medical workers.
“Our research doesn’t necessarily mean we shouldn’t reopen schools, which is a decision that must be made on many grounds. It means we should take care to protect children, the same way we protect adults,” said Ma Ting, associate professor at Harbin Institute of Technology’s Shenzhen campus, one of the co-authors of the Lancet paper.
Controls are strict, if variable, across the country. Guangdong province requires all students and staff to provide a recent negative coronavirus viral nucleic acid test. Local media have reported that at least one asymptomatic child was discovered as a result. While many Beijing schools have asked for tests too, one student from a school in the northeastern suburbs said they had not been asked to take any tests or even temperature checks.
In many schools, students must stay one metre apart from each other and from teachers — with the exception of some joyful class selfies, published in state media. Masks are constantly on: some schools give out two masks per student per day.
Health workers collect swabs from high school students
“There’s not a moment when students are out of a teachers’ gaze. We’re treating them like it’s kindergarten,” said Sally, a Chinese language and literature teacher in Shenzhen who did not want her full name to be published. She oversees her 15-year-old students on their way to bathrooms and canteens to ensure they maintain the correct social distance.
Some schools go even further than government guidelines. At one of Beijing’s Renmin University-affiliated secondary school campuses, teachers deliver classes in a separate room through a video feed.
Beijing’s 101 Middle School, an elite institution, has installed “smart blackboards” that transmit a teacher’s notes and voice to a second classroom, allowing them to teach two classrooms simultaneously.
In the weeks before schools opened, teachers rehearsed anti-epidemic procedures. Sally’s school ran drills to simulate what would happen should a student show signs of fever. The whole class would be quarantined and a doctor would come to take throat swabs of the whole class for tests. After two hours, if the results came back negative, the class could be released.
If an outbreak was confirmed, it would have consequences for the entire school. “The pressure of epidemic controls is always present, we’re tense and nervous,” said Ivy, a maths teacher in Shenzhen who did not want her full name to be published.
But this level of preparedness may prove more difficult to sustain once more students return given the high staffing levels required.
“Our responsibility is to get them to survive the tough exam period,” said Ivy. By “survive”, she means getting her 15-year old students into a senior secondary school, thereby putting them on track for a respected university. “For us teachers, we worry about students’ progress more than about epidemic controls.”
For now at least, parents are happy. In Beijing, many families rented expensive and cramped flats in order to be near good schools.
“It’s best if schools open earlier,” said Kan Jing, mother of a final-year student in Shanghai. “Studying at home, phone in one hand, QQ [instant messaging] open, there’s no self-control.”
“I’m sure there are disciplined kids, but disciplined kids are always from other families,” Ms Kan added.