More than 300 million students in China, everyone from kindergarteners all the way up to college students, are stuck at home trying to learn online. That’s almost as many people as the entire population of the United States.
The move to online classes is just one response to the outbreak of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, and many other places are taking similar measures. Worldwide, the flulike virus has infected nearly 400,000 people and led to over 17,000 deaths since China first reported the outbreak in December.
China in recent weeks has reported a dramatic slowdown in new cases, the result of drastic containment measures including the lockdown of Hubei province, home to 60 million people. As of Tuesday, the total number of cases in mainland China stood at 81,591. The death toll has risen to 3,281 people.
In Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, authorities have eased tough lockdown measures as the city saw no new infections for the fifth day. Downtown Wuhan remains the only high-risk area in Hubei province, with other cities and counties classified as low risk.
Some schools in China’s far western provinces opened earlier this month, and another eight provinces and cities say they’ll reopen schools at the end of March or early April for students who need to take their entrance exams for high school and college. But in most cities around China, many students and their families are wondering when school will resume as normal.
'A learning cliff'
The Shanghai education bureau’s e-learning classes start every day at 9 a.m. sharp, and students watch their lessons all day until 4:30 p.m. Shanghai public schools’ classes are all televised — that includes Chinese, math, English, art, physical education and science. Aside from watching classes, students interact with their teachers through an app, answering extra questions and turning in assignments.
This huge, online learning experiment got off to a rocky start. Jessica Kaufman, a Canadian teacher at a local school in Shanghai, said there was no time for training.
“For some people, I think it is just such a crash course ... the learning curve, especially in the first few weeks, was massive; it was more like a learning cliff. And some people held on and some people fell off.”
“For some people, I think it is just such a crash course ... the learning curve, especially in the first few weeks, was massive; it was more like a learning cliff. And some people held on and some people fell off,” Kaufman said.
Schools are still scrambling to make it all work. Internet connections can be spotty, and teachers say they are working longer hours collecting and grading homework and preparing online materials. They’ve had to learn some things the hard way: Don’t leave the door unlocked while giving an online lecture — someone might walk in. And be careful not to use any banned words or you could get booted out of class (artificial intelligence is used to monitor these platforms).
A lot of teachers are also parents, and that makes things even harder.
Zhu Min, a third grade science teacher in Shandong province in northern China, knows a number of families in that predicament.
“Some of my friends, they and their spouse are both teachers. They’re going crazy. Every day, they’re just begging for school to start again. I’ve never wanted to go back to work so urgently.”
“Some of my friends, they and their spouse are both teachers. They’re going crazy. Every day, they’re just begging for school to start again. I’ve never wanted to go back to work so urgently,” Zhu said.
They’re not the only ones. Kids want to go back to school, too.
Luo Zi Han is a sixth grader at a private school in Shanghai. On a recent school day, he sat alone in his room and watched class on a laptop while his grandmother took care of his 4-year-old brother. He really misses school.
“At school between classes, we can talk with our friends. But at home, there’s no one to talk to. It's really boring. At least I have my little brother nearby. I can play with him, but for the kids who don’t have siblings, it’s very lonely.”
“At school between classes, we can talk with our friends. But at home, there’s no one to talk to. It's really boring. At least I have my little brother nearby. I can play with him, but for the kids who don’t have siblings, it’s very lonely,” Zi Han said.
Millions of students in China face an even greater challenge as they prepare for high-stakes entrance exams. Li Jing Jing lives in Shanghai with her 14-year-old daughter who’s studying for exams in June.
“It’s a lot of work; she has six teachers sending assignments all through the day and so there are so many notifications. It puts a lot of pressure on them and the teachers. I don’t think this is good for children,” Jing Jing said.
Jing Jing doesn’t want to stress her daughter out, but taking it easy isn’t really an option.
“I told her she doesn’t need to do all the work if she’s tired, but she is a very obedient student and she doesn’t want to be the only one not doing her classwork,” Jing Jing said. “Sometimes, she’s up till midnight doing homework.”
Does it work?
Everyone agrees that online learning is really challenging. Some people wonder how effective it is.
Zhu, the third grade science teacher, says when her school reopens, they may have to restart the semester.
“The thing is, we can’t really guarantee that our students are learning anything. The younger kids especially can’t manage their own learning, so we don’t know if they’re getting anything out of their classes.”
“The thing is, we can’t really guarantee that our students are learning anything. The younger kids especially can’t manage their own learning, so we don’t know if they’re getting anything out of their classes,” Zhu Min said.
Meanwhile, as more schools around the world have shut down to prevent the spread of the virus, they too, are venturing into online learning.
Kathleen Mclennan is a dean at a private school outside of Guangzhou. Her husband is also a teacher, and they have two school-age kids. Although the couple struggles to get their own work done while helping their children, they’ve gotten better at it.
As such, Mclennan has this advice for others in the same predicament: “My advice would be to keep it simple and absolutely to manage things so you are taking care of your mental health and taking breaks and getting exercise and doing whatever it is that feeds your soul, make sure you have enough time for that also.”
And one more thing: “As your child struggles to focus and you struggle to get any work done, close your eyes and take a deep breath and imagine that happy day — in the hopefully not so distant future — when your kid goes back to school,” she said.
Reuters contributed to this report.