At Shanghai High, new back-to-school realities under coronavirus

high schools in china
Students wearing face masks are seen in their classroom during a government organised media tour at Shanghai High School after it reopened in Shanghai on May 7, 2020. Source: Hector Retamal/AFP

At Shanghai High School, masks and social distancing have muted the adolescent buzz, classmates talk through glass in the canteen, and graduation ceremonies remain in doubt.

As schools in coronavirus-hit countries worldwide ponder how the pandemic will alter campus life, China’s phased reopening of in-person classes points to a radically different atmosphere.

Students in a number of cities including Shanghai and Beijing began returning to classes in late April, starting with high schoolers.

high schools in china

Students are seen during a kung fu class during a government organised media tour at Shanghai High School after it reopened in Shanghai on May 7, 2020.

But on the leafy grounds of Shanghai High, one of the huge metropolis’s top secondary schools, reminders of the virus and ways of preventing its spread are around every corner.

In lieu of the rowdy rush of students entering campus each morning, they file in one at a time, their images appearing on a giant TV screen along with their temperature.

The same applies for entry into some instruction halls. Footprint decals on the ground offer guidance on social distancing and face masks are mandatory.

high schools in china

A thermometer (C) and disinfectant bottle are seen outside a classroom during a government-organised media tour at Shanghai High School. Source: Hector Retamal/AFP

Although lunch is brought to students in classrooms in a crowd-reducing move, dinner for the school’s hundreds of dormitory-dwelling students is served in the canteen.

But glass shields have been installed on dining tables to wall students off from each other, and signs urge them to “minimise interaction and concentrate on eating”.

But despite the sobering new realities, headmaster Feng Zhigang said resuming classes was necessary for kids who were cut off from classrooms for three months and cooped up at home pursuing online learning.

high schools in china

Some schools in China that have been closed or online-only since January began gradually reopening last month, with Beijing and Shanghai letting some students return last week. Source: Hector Retamal/AFP

“It (resuming classes) is a responsible action, not only for children’s studies, but also for their physical and mental health,” said Feng during a media tour of the 155-year-old school.

“Besides, (at home) there is a lack of social activities so long-term online lessons more or less will bring some problems.”

So far so good on that front, Feng added, but some students were “fretful” about the fearsome pandemic, prompting increased “communication” with their instructors.

The school’s seniors returned first on April 27, with younger students following suit this week.

high schools in china

A woman gestures while visiting the Disneyland amusement park in Shanghai on May 11, 2020. Disneyland Shanghai reopened on May 11 to the public after being closed since January due to the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak. Source: Hector Retamal/AFP

Shanghai plans to begin bringing the upper-level primary school grades back in on May 18.

The form that graduation ceremonies will take is a quandary for schools worldwide, and Shanghai High is no exception.

“We will have to see what the epidemic situation is like at the time,” an administrator said when asked about the school’s June commencement plans.

And for some students who had hoped to attend universities abroad, there is a big question mark with many countries still in lockdown and air travel greatly reduced.

“The difficulty (of studying abroad) is a common one faced by many schools nowadays,” said Feng.

high schools in china

A woman exercises during sunrise on the promenade on the Bund along the Huangpu River in Shanghai on May 7, 2020. Source: Hector Retamal/AFP

But some students were taking the health crisis in their stride.

“We all know that the coronavirus is here and that we have to stay cautious about it,” said Chen Qingzhi, 17.

“Most important of all, (we need to) be confident that we will get through these hard times.

“We need to stay confident because it will end eventually.”

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