Everything about going back to school after a months-long corona-virus shutdown was bound to be strange.
The reality has been disappointing. His classmates are barely recognizable behind their mandatory masks. Desks are spaced too far to chat with a neighbor. And lunch time?
“It used to be the most relaxing time of the day,” said Jack, who returned last week to high school in Hangzhou, a two-and-a-half hour drive southwest of Shanghai. “We could pick our favorite food and talk with friends. Now we sit apart from each other, just focus on our lunch and the whole canteen is dead quiet.”
After more than a dozen weeks learning online and going stir crazy, Chinese million students are slowly going back to school. For families around the world, it’s a snapshot of how the pandemic is toppling the structures of daily living, even after outbreaks subside From four times daily temperature checks to social distancing rules that make socializing impossible, kids’ new school realities fall far short of normal.
The thing that adolescents and kids most look forward to is the close contact, being able to sit around and just be together, and that won’t be allowed, said Greg Smith, head of Shenzhen’s Shekou International School. “It’s going to be a much more regimented and controlled space than children are used to.”
The return of children to the classroom is an important benchmark in a tentative recovery from the pandemic that took hold in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei province. A few countries in Europe have tentatively re-opened their schools, and in a few places, students never stopped attending. But with roughly 1.3 billion students out of school worldwide, China is by far the biggest to reopen its educational system.
Unlike the closures, which were swift and sweeping, the re-openings have been neither. China’s official coronavirus numbers are way down from the mid-February peak, and it is trying to reanimate its cities and towns without sparking a second wave of outbreaks. Provinces with few cases opened their schools first, followed by a return for some students or some grades in megacities like Shanghai and Beijing. The schools in Wuhan are scheduled to start again on May 6.
All of the country’s schools have had to pass public health inspections. Classrooms have been reconfigured to allow for maximum social distancing, with some schools staggering schedules and start times to make sure there’s enough room for everyone. The Beijing education commission elected to delay the start of the school day from 8 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. in an effort to minimize rush hour crowds and help students ease in to the new routines.
“It’s a psychological buffer period,” Li Yi, spokesman for the city’s municipal education commission said on the education ministry’s website. “From home learning and back to school, we should give students a transition period and not switch immediately to full-on mode.”
At many schools, parents and students were asked to report a full month of travel history prior to re-opening. Smith said he’d had hundreds of communications with local officials and health authorities about what’s expected. Teachers, administrators and staff have been tasked with keeping kids at a distance from one another.
Parents have also been asked to keep their distance. Chai Jing’s 10-year-old son attends an elementary school in central China’s Shaanxi province, about 300 miles from Wuhan; the school required parents to drop off their kids a ways from the usual entrance. “Everybody was a bit nervous at first,” said Chai. “But I hear every part of the school is disinfected, so that makes me feel safer.”
Teaching a room full of masked students also poses new challenges. Jerry Chu, an English teacher at a state primary school in Shanghai, observed that her students won’t be able to watch her mouth as she forms foreign sounds, and she won’t be able to see theirs. Music teachers will have similar problems with choral students or anyone learning a woodwind or brass instrument. Then there’s just everyday fidgeting. “As the weather gets warmer, some kids might find wearing masks uncomfortable and get distracted,” Chu said.
It’s the social aspects of the school day, though, which are truly unrecognizable. To manage recess and playtime, some schools have elected to keep students inside, supervised, at a safe distance from one another. Schools with more outdoor space are allowing for small group play.
Lunchtime poses the most risk of contagion, with masks off and mouths watering. One school in Hunan converted its gym into a cafeteria with a large grid of standalone desks spaced exactly 1.8 meters apart. Other schools eat in shifts. Some have created dining cubicles, walling the children off from one another.
By the standards of both public health officials and educators, the schools’ solutions are imperfect. Hopefully, they say, it’s temporary. “We have to make sure everyone feels safe and secure before we can move back into what a normal education would look like,” said Shekou’s Smith.
The months kids spent at home were also far from ideal, with varying degrees of online support and supervision from schools, teachers and parents. Masked classmates and teachers are better than none at all. “It’s good that he can go back to class,” said Chai Jing, mom to the Shaanxi third-grader. “It was tough watching him play games on the internet all day long at home.”
Sourece: Bloomberg News