While the Communist Party has adopted many of the same reorganization and distancing procedures used elsewhere, it has implemented them with a distinctive command-and-control approach that does not admit of dissent.
Under a bright blue sky almost 2,000 students met this month for the school start at Hanyang No. 1 High School in Wuhan, the Chinese city where the coronavirus first emerged. Medical staff stood guard at the school’s entrances, taking the temperature. Administrative officials reviewed the students’ travel histories and coronavirus test results. Local Communist Party cadres kept watch, making sure teachers followed detailed instructions on hygiene and show an “anti-epidemic spirit.”
“I’m not worried,” said a music teacher at the school, Yang Meng, in an interview. “Wuhan is now the safest place”.
As countries around the world struggle to reopen schools safely this fall, China is harnessing the power of its authoritarian system to offer face-to-face learning to approximately 195 million students in kindergarten through 12th grade in public schools.
While the Communist Party has adopted many of the same sanitation and distancing procedures used elsewhere, it has implemented them with a distinctive approach to command and total control that does not admit dissent. It has mobilized battalions of local officials and party cadres to inspect classrooms, implemented apps and other technologies to monitor students and staff, and restricted their movements. He has even told parents to stay away for fear of spreading germs.
China’s leader Xi Jinping said in a speech Tuesday that the country’s progress in fighting the virus, including opening schools, had “fully demonstrated the clear superiority of leadership of the Communist Party and our socialist system. “
China’s state-run top-down political system allows the party to lead its vast bureaucracy in pursuit of a single goal, an approach that would be nearly impossible anywhere else in the world.
In the United States, where the pandemic still continues, discussions about how and when to resume face-to-face classes have been tense. The absence of a national strategy it has had school districts design their own approach. Coronavirus testing can be difficult to come by. Parental pressure has forced cities to delay opening classrooms again. Teachers unions have threatened to go on strike, while university students have disobeyed the rules against assemblies.
In China, where the virus has been under control for months, there is no such debate. The party controls the courts and the media and nullifies any perceived threats to your schedule. Local bureaucracies have no choice but to obey the orders of the all-powerful central government. Independent unions are banned and activism discouraged, making it difficult for the country’s more than 12 million teachers to organize. Administrators have cornered college students on campus, prohibiting them from leaving school to eat or meet friends.
“The Chinese system moves on its own”said Yong Zhao, an academic at the University of Kansas who has studied education in China. “The system works like an army: it just works, no matter what other people think.”
In many ways, China is applying the same heavy-handed model to reopen the schools it has used to control the virus. To stem the epidemic, authorities imposed heavy blockades and deployed invasive technologies to track residents, sparking public anger in some places and concern about the erosion of privacy and civil liberties.
With schools, the government effort in some places has met with similar frustrations. Teachers, who sometimes double as medical workers, checking for fever and isolating sick students, say they are exhausted by the new protocols. LStudents have complained that some policies, like the closures on college campuses, are excessive.
China is introducing many of the same measures as countries in Europe and other places where schools have recently reopened. Principals are instructing students and teachers to maintain a distance within classrooms, although the seating arrangements remain largely the same. Teachers are trying to keep students separated by grade, assigning specific routes and entrances for different age groups to avoid overcrowding. Masks are mostly optional within classrooms for students and staff.
But China’s focus is also a lot more demanding, as it has been throughout the pandemic. Students and staff in areas where outbreaks had previously been reported, or who had traveled to areas considered at risk, were required to show coronavirus test results before the start of school. Education officials have urged students to avoid “unnecessary outings” in addition to going to school, although the rule is unlikely to apply. Students are also discouraged from talking while eating or taking public transportation.
“A heart and a mind to prevent and control the epidemic”says a propaganda slogan posted on the school grounds.
China still faces the possibility of new outbreaks, epidemiologists say, especially in the fall and winter months. But so far, the measures appear to be effective, with no reported outbreaks or school closures.
The opening of schools has given Xi a propaganda victory at a time of slowing economic growth and international criticism for his government’s early cover-up and mishandling of the outbreak.