Back to School in China: Smaller Classes, Innovations and Lessons for Others - OZY | A Modern Media Company
For some urban Chinese students, a return to school has meant better conditions than before the epidemic.
SourceChen Zhonghao/Xinhua via Getty


China’s reinvention of the classroom could offer vital tips for other countries when schools reopen.

By Nian Liu, Qianer Liu and Yuan Yang

Smaller classes, shorter days and parental pickup at the school gate instead of a crowded journey on public transportation — for some urban Chinese students, a return to school has meant better conditions than before the epidemic.

While nearly all of China’s provinces have 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 3:30 p.m., a relief to students used to staying late at night to study and eating dinner at school. Classes are capped at 20 students rather than 30, say Shirley Wu and Maya Ting, both 18-year-old students at Beijing’s sought-after Chen Jinglun Middle School.

“The teaching environment has improved compared to before the epidemic because classes are smaller,” says Ting. “My parents are very glad I’m back at school. It means I’m not at home,” adds 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 recently: “In most states in the U.S., 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 child care is not available for medical workers.

The pressure of epidemic controls is always present; we’re tense and nervous.

Ivy, math teacher in Shenzhen

“Our research doesn’t necessarily mean we shouldn’t reopen schools, which is a decision that must be made on many grounds,” says Ma Ting, an associate professor at Harbin Institute of Technology’s Shenzhen campus, one of the co-authors of the Lancet paper. “It means we should take care to protect children, the same way we protect adults.”

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 3 feet apart from one another 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.

“There’s not a moment when students are out of a teacher’s gaze. We’re treating them like it’s kindergarten,” says Sally, a Chinese language and literature teacher in Shenzhen who did not want her full name used. She oversees her 15-year-old students on their way to bathrooms and the cafeteria 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 from students via video feed.

Beijing’s 101 Middle School — an elite institution whose alumni include Chinese President Xi Jinping — 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 all students for tests. After two hours, if the results came back negative, the class could be released.


Students at the No. 87 Middle School in Changchun, Jilin province, China.

Source Yan Linyun/Xinhua via Getty

If an outbreak is confirmed, it will have consequences for the entire school. “The pressure of epidemic controls is always present; we’re tense and nervous,” says Ivy, a math teacher in Shenzhen who did not want her full name used.

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,” says 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 rent expensive and cramped flats to be near good schools.

“It’s best if schools open earlier,” says 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,” Kan adds.

By Nian Liu, Qianer Liu and Yuan Yang

OZY partners with the U.K.'s Financial Times to bring you premium analysis and features. © The Financial Times Limited 2020.

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