Across the globe, students head back to school

The New York Times

Posted at Sep 03 2020 01:19 AM

Across the globe, students head back to school 1
Karel Aboga, an incoming Grade 11 student, tries to find a signal from the second level of their home in Parola, Tondo, Manila on June 16, 2020. The lack of gadgets and strong internet connection among teachers and learners have been identified as a challenge in implementing distance learning in the Philippines as face-to-face sessions are strongly discouraged amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News/file

From Wuhan to London to Tel Aviv and many places in between, students are returning to classrooms this week after months of staying home in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Opening schools is a step toward normalcy, in a changed world where the virus has killed more than 850,000 people and infected 25.4 million. Many countries see the return as imperative to jump-starting economies devastated by the pandemic.

Some are taking the risk despite rising cases, and schools are requiring precautions like wearing masks, washing hands, checking temperatures and keeping children in social bubbles.

In the Chinese city of Wuhan, the original center of the pandemic, state-run news media said that more than 2,840 primary and secondary schools, serving nearly 1.4 million students, reopened on Tuesday. Students had their temperatures taken and were instructed in hand-washing techniques.

The school opening was a striking turnabout from the early days in January and February, when Wuhan became synonymous with the virus. The deadly infection spread rapidly and mysteriously through the city, and officials imposed a 76-day lockdown.

Now, China is taking an ambitious approach toward reopening schools, vowing to resume in-person classes this fall for almost all students. A notable exception is the region of Xinjiang in the west, where several cities remain under lockdown more than a month after an outbreak there.

In Britain, classrooms and schoolyards rang with the clamor of students on Tuesday morning as hundreds of thousands of children returned to classrooms in the government’s boldest bid yet to reopen society.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has declared the reopening of schools to be a “moral duty,” and made it a centerpiece of his strategy to recover from the pandemic, which has inflicted a higher toll on Britain — 41,500 deaths — than on any other European country.

There is no nationwide rule about wearing face coverings at school. The government has left those decisions up to individual schools and has said children in primary school do not need to do so.

In Belgium, children ages 5 and older also headed back to school Tuesday. Only those in high-risk groups were allowed to stay home. But children returning from vacation in areas with high infection rates are not allowed back in school for 14 days. Masks are required for older students.

After six months off, other than a brief return in June, more than 12 million students in France were also back in classrooms, though the country is seeing climbing numbers of virus cases. Students over age 11 and all teachers are required to wear masks and try to maintain social distance. Where there are outbreaks, classrooms will close again, said the minister of education, Jean-Michel Blanquer.

In Israel, more than 2 million students returned Tuesday despite a relatively high infection rate and concerns that academic institutions could facilitate the spread. Experts have said that Israel’s quick reopening of schools in May — after COVID-19 cases had subsided — played a significant role in the virus’s comeback.

The Israeli authorities instituted new regulations meant to prevent outbreaks, and decided to keep schools closed in 23 cities and towns with especially high infection rates. As of Tuesday afternoon, there were 20,699 active virus cases in Israel, according to the Health Ministry.

In Russia, which reached 1 million confirmed cases on Tuesday, schools opened with few precautions. Teachers and children were not required to wear masks.

Spanish students are also returning to school this month, despite a surge in cases that has made Spain the worst current hot spot in Europe.

Children older than 5 are required to wear masks. But because schools are managed by each of Spain’s 17 regional administrations, rather than the central government, there are discrepancies in not only how but also when students are returning to the classroom. And some regions have been changing their school plans with only days to go before the scheduled reopening.

The global reopenings come as the United States has opted to carry on with remote learning for the most part.

New York City is the only major school system in the country planning on offering some in-person education this fall, though it pushed back its start date on Tuesday. Many U.S. colleges and universities that have reopened have seen outbreaks on camps, forcing some to close again.

But in other parts of the world, the openings have been hailed as a powerful sign that life is slowly getting back to normal.

“School is open, and I’m very excited and happy,” a sixth grader named Li Xinnuo told a radio broadcaster in Wuhan. “I can see my classmates, whom I haven’t seen for a long time.”