'My first day back': returning to school in China

Social distancing, temperature checks and a set menu…One school leader in China describes his first day back in school after three months of closures

Simon McRoberts

Social distancing and sanitiser

When we finished school and said our goodbyes to students on 16 January, wishing them a nice break over Chinese New Year, we did not envisage that the next time we would see them would be on 27 April, more than three months later. 

This return to school does not feel like any other. I keep considering the procedures that we ran through with staff at the end of last week and trying to think about how we can ensure students will understand these, and stick to them.

I can't quite imagine how our canteen, normally full of laughter, will be transformed into a space of silent, socially distanced dining.

My first day back at school: China

7.40am 

As I walk through the newly installed thermal detection units, which check that my temperature is under 37.3 degrees, I am surprised to see how many students have arrived already and are milling around the front courtyard or are socially distancing in the school's atrium.

Despite the fact that they have not seen each other in person in more than two months, most are engrossed in their smartphones.

With social distancing at the forefront of the school's new prevention policy, students are escorted up varying staircases to their tutor rooms. Only one year group of just over 100 students has returned, but this still feels like a huge challenge.

8.30am 

Following our weekly flag-raising ceremony, which is immaculately observed, the registers are taken.

Students are then guided through a special presentation on Covid-19 and the steps that the school is taking to keep our community safe. These include rearranging classrooms so that students are sat in an 'L' shape around their desks, wearing masks at all times, providing hand sanitiser in each room and sharing instructions on how to wash your hands thoroughly.

Students all listen, taking in the advice attentively and are keen to ask questions on teachers' experiences of quarantine.

10.40am 

Logistically, it is difficult to try to maintain a one-metre distance at all times.

I thought break would be a big challenge, but it comes and passes with only a few reminders to students about how far apart they should stand and which entrances and exits to use.

Staff are all on duty and there is a palpable sense of relief in the air that we are beginning to return to some semblance of normality.

12.30pm 

My biggest concern for the first day back is lunchtime. Will students be able to follow the guidance on social distancing while enjoying their lunch?

Students line up outside the canteen, ready to go through another thermal detection unit. Nurses are on hand, just in case someone has a temperature. 

Students sanitise their hands on entry and move in procession along a track marked on the floor at one-metre intervals. They receive their tray – there are no options for lunch, just a single set menu  and walk to their designated seats.

All students sit facing the same direction, one seat apart. It feels like something out of a sci-fi film.

3pm 

It's the end of the day. As we walk students down to the main entrance, I think again about how different today is from a normal school day.

There are no school buses. Instead, students are met by their parents at the gate, all eager to hear about their child's first day.

While the day has been strange, it has also reminded me of how important schools are for staff and students  to make them feel safe, to make them feel normal and to remind them that we will get through this turbulent situation together.

Key things I have learned during our return to school process:

  • Learn your school's procedures inside out. And even when you are convinced you know them, read them again. Students will ask and need constant guidance.
  • Make sure that you have a water bottle and your own cutlery to hand, as well as a spare bottle of hand sanitiser.
  • Remember that some students, and some staff, will be nervous to return to school. Be sensitive to their concerns.

Simon McRoberts is international head of secondary at Nord Anglia Chinese International School in Shanghai

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