Absence makes the heart grow fonder as China goes back to school

By Emily Chow

SHANGHAI, May 7 (Reuters) - Temperature checks, compulsory face masks and scrupulous hygiene - it's more like going to a hospital than a school, but the Shanghai students returning to class after three months of lockdown are thrilled to be there.

"I feel so excited coming back to school. Usually we look forward to the holidays but suddenly our holidays became so long. This time, we longed to go back to school, where we can see our friends and teachers," 17-year-old Zhang Jiayi told Reuters.

She was among the more senior pupils who went back to school in Shanghai this week in a staggered reopening following the closures to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.

It's no longer school as they knew it.

Students and staff alike are required to enter the school building via a thermal scanner and must wear a mask, even when addressing the class. The walls are papered with posters on measures to tackle the coronavirus and in the spotlessly-clean school canteen, glass walls divide the tables, so only two students can eat together.

Zhang is undaunted. She said she had grown used to such measures, which have become the norm in public spaces in Shanghai.

China's gradual return to school will be closely watched across the world as parents struggle with taking on the role of teacher for home schooling, but are nervous about the risk of a new wave of infection.

China is treading carefully. Each region has a different timetable. Schools in some lower risk provinces, such as Qinghai and Guizhou, reopened in March, while students elsewhere took online classes.

In the major cities Shanghai and Beijing, the reopening is only just getting under way. Zhang went back to the classroom on Wednesday.

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School principal Feng Zhigang told reporters students were required to wear masks to guard against the virus' spread, except at meal times and that regular disinfection took place.

"These places are at high risk for cross infection," he said. "When students are not in the classroom, we do disinfection at fixed times."

Story continues

In cafeterias and classrooms, students have to sit a metre apart to avoid contact with respiratory and saliva droplets. The school also has stockpiles of disinfectant, personal protective equipment, gloves, hand sanitiser and masks in its infirmary, in line with the Shanghai government's requirement.

Whatever the physical risks, the big benefit of a return to school is likely to be a sense of mental wellbeing.

Feng said the school had a psychological guidance team to help students during the isolation of online classes, but that could never be a substitute for being reunited in person with friends and teachers.

"Teachers and students being together, this is the most effective," he said. (Reporting by Emily Chow; editing by Brenda Goh and Barbara Lewis)

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