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

Students in Shanghai, Beijing and elsewhere began returning to classes in late April, beginning with high schoolers
Students in Shanghai, Beijing and elsewhere began returning to classes in late April, beginning with high schoolers Hector RETAMAL AFP
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Shanghai (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.

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.

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.

"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.

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.

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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