Shanghai students in their final year of middle and high school returned to classrooms. (Photo: AFP/Hector Retamal)

BEIJING - AFP
Students return to class in Shanghai and Beijing as COVID-19 lockdown eases

Tens of thousands of students returned to school in Shanghai and Beijing on Monday (Apr 27) after months of closures intended to curb the spread of the coronavirus, as China's major cities gradually return to normality.

Shanghai students in their final year of middle and high school returned to classrooms, while only high-school seniors in Beijing were allowed back on campus to prepare for the all-important university entrance exam.

China has largely curbed the spread of the deadly disease, but is still on high alert with growing fears of imported cases and a second wave of domestic infections in the northeast.

Teenager Meng Xianghao said he was taking extra precautions on his first day back at Beijing's Chenjinglun High School.

"I brought masks, garbage bags and disinfectant," Meng, who had just taken the subway for the first time in months, told AFP as children in masks and uniform tracksuits filed past police and officials to enter the school.

"I'm glad, it's been too long since I've seen my classmates," said 18-year-old student Hang Huan. 

"I've missed them a lot."

A tent set up at the entrance was staffed by a person in a white hazmat suit, while a man wearing a container of disinfectant on his back sprayed the ground by the school gates.

Across the country, schools that have been closed or online-only since January began gradually reopening last month, while virus epicentre Wuhan is set to reopen its high schools on May 6.

Students in the capital will have their temperatures measured at school gates and must show a "green" health code on a special app that calculates a person's infection risk, according to China's Ministry of Education.

The ministry said some schools in Beijing had rehearsed the reopening with mock "students" in advance.


The long absence from classrooms has added to the pressure on final-year students. (Photo: AFP/Greg Baker)


WELCOME SPEECHES

Footage from the Communist Party-run Beijing Daily showed some of the city's 49,000 high-school seniors in classrooms on Monday, wearing masks at desks which were spaced evenly apart as teachers welcomed them back with speeches.

A screen at the front showed a photo of Chinese President Xi Jinping, as the teacher talked to the class about the significance of overcoming the COVID-19 pandemic.

In some cafeterias, students are assigned fixed seating spots spaced at least one metre apart.

Beijing still has strict measures in place to prevent a fresh outbreak, requiring visitors to the city to pass stringent testing requirements and complete lengthy quarantine periods.

In Shanghai, some schools have set aside special rooms for isolating students with "abnormal temperatures", the ministry said.

Beijing student Xiao Shuhan told AFP he thought some form of social distancing would continue even as classmates and friends reunite.

"We'll no longer put our arms around each other's shoulders," he said.

The long absence from classrooms has added to the pressure on final-year students preparing for the high-stakes "gaokao" exams, which is the only route to Chinese universities and notoriously difficult.

"At school, there's a certain atmosphere for learning and at home there is not," said Wang Yuchen, a 17-year-old student.

China said in March that it would postpone the exams by one month to July this year.

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