How China brought nearly 200 million students back to school
By Javier C. Hernández
Under bright blue skies, nearly 2,000 students gathered this month for the start of school at Hanyang No. 1 High School in Wuhan, the Chinese city where the coronavirus first emerged.
Medical staff stood guard at school entrances, taking temperatures. Administrative officials reviewed the students’ travel histories and coronavirus test results. Local Communist Party cadres kept watch, making sure teachers followed detailed instructions on hygiene and showed an “anti-epidemic spirit.”
“I’m not worried,” a music teacher at the school, Yang Meng, said in an interview. “Wuhan is now the safest place.”
As countries around the world struggle to safely reopen schools this fall, China is harnessing the power of its authoritarian system to offer in-person learning for about 195 million students in kindergarten through 12th grade at public schools.
While the Communist Party has adopted many of the same sanitation and distancing procedures used elsewhere, it has rolled them out with a characteristic all-out, command-and-control approach that brooks no dissent. It has mobilized battalions of local officials and party cadres to inspect classrooms, deployed apps and other technology to monitor students and staff, and restricted their movements. It has even told parents to stay away for fear of spreading germs.
China’s leader, Xi Jinping, said in a speech Tuesday that the country’s progress in fighting the virus, including the opening of schools, had “fully demonstrated the clear superiority of Communist Party leadership and our socialist system.”
China’s top-down, state-led political system allows the party to drive its vast bureaucracy in pursuit of a single target — an approach that would be nearly impossible anywhere else in the world.
In many ways, China is applying the same heavy-handed model to reopen schools that it has used to bring the virus under control. To stop the epidemic, authorities imposed harsh lockdowns and deployed invasive technologies to track residents, raising public anger in some places and concerns about the erosion of privacy and civil liberties.
With schools, the government’s effort has in some places been met with similar frustrations. Teachers, who are at times doubling as medical workers, checking for fevers and isolating sick students, say they are exhausted by the new protocols. Students have complained that some policies, such as lockdowns on university campuses, are excessive.
China is introducing many of the same measures as countries in Europe and elsewhere where schools have recently reopened. Principals are instructing students and teachers to keep a distance inside classrooms, although seating arrangements remain largely the same.
Teachers are trying to keep students separated by grade, assigning specific routes and entrances for different age groups to avoid crowding. Masks are mostly optional inside classrooms for students and staff.
But China’s approach is also much more demanding, as it has been throughout the pandemic. Students and staff in areas where outbreaks had previously been reported, or who had traveled to areas considered risky, were required to show coronavirus test results before the start of school. Education officials have urged students to avoid “unnecessary outings” aside from going to school, although the rule is unlikely to be enforced. Students are also discouraged from speaking while eating or taking public transportation.
“One heart and one mind to prevent and control the epidemic,” reads a propaganda slogan plastered around school grounds.
China still faces the possibility of fresh outbreaks, epidemiologists say, especially in the fall and winter months. But so far, the measures appear to be effective, with no outbreaks or school closures reported.
The opening of schools has given Xi a propaganda win in a time of slowing economic growth and international criticism over his government’s early cover-up and mishandling of the outbreak.
While the central government has warned school officials to avoid becoming “paralyzed or lax,” it is unclear whether the measures are sustainable. The government’s blanket rules have provoked ire in some corners.
Many schools are already short on staff and resources, and educators say they are struggling to keep up with long lists of virus-control tasks. Some teachers are rising at 4 a.m. just to review protocols.
“There are too many things, and we aren’t compensated,” Li Mengtian, a teacher at a primary school in the city of Shenzhen, said in a telephone interview. “We need to spend a lot of time and energy on our work.”
At other schools, educators say that officials are blindly following policies to satisfy higher-ups, even if they are not effective.
Kang Jinzhi, a teacher at a high school in Jingzhou, a city about 130 miles west of Wuhan, said a thermal camera at the entrance of her school constantly provided inaccurate data, labeling everyone who enters as feverish.
“The machine is useless,” she said in an interview. “But the school must set this up because the policies make such demands.”
At public universities, which serve some 40 million students in China, anger has erupted over campus lockdowns that have targeted students while exempting faculty and staff. Officials have also banned students from receiving takeout meals and packages. In recent days, videos have circulated online showing long lines at cafeterias and students trying to hug their dates through campus fences.
“Do you plan to lock us up for life?” complained Pan Sheng, a sophomore at Changshu Institute of Technology in the eastern province of Jiangsu, on Weibo, a microblogging site.
“I feel like I’m in high school,” Pan said in an interview. “We came to college to gather knowledge and learn how to conduct ourselves in a society, not just sit in class at school every day.”
The Ministry of Education’s guidelines call for temperatures to be taken at least three times a day and reported to school officials. The rules are tighter in areas that the government sees as particularly vulnerable to an outbreak. In Beijing, for example, masks are required at all times.
Some measures go even further in expanding the scope of what is typically expected of the country’s educators. The ministry has ordered schools to help students cope with the stress and trauma of the pandemic by providing them with counseling. Officials are being held accountable for reducing myopia among schoolchildren, rates of which rose sharply during the pandemic, the government says, as students spent more time using computers to learn (and probably play).
Despite the hassle of some of the restrictions, many families welcome the resumption of classes. After months of leading makeshift lessons in their living rooms and nagging their children about playing too many video games, parents are relieved to be able to send them back to classes and after-school tutoring programs.
“We controlled the epidemic well, and it will be good for our country,” said Sofia Tang, mother of a high school freshman in the eastern city of Hangzhou. “If we handled this at all like they are handling it overseas, there would be riots.”