With a haversack on her back and a mask on her face, seven-year-old Kim Kyu-rim went to primary school in Seoul for the first time on May 27 – more than three months delayed due to the coronavirus outbreak that has infected over 11,000 people in South Korea.
While she was excited to meet new friends at Soong Eui Elementary School, she was unable to get too close to them due to safe distancing rules.
“When I arrived in school with a friend, a teacher told us to separate and not stand together, because of the coronavirus,” the first-grader said.
“And we have to sit alone in class with a plastic divider on our desk, not two by two as usual.”
Schools have reopened in phases since May 20, starting with classes for high school seniors, but school life in a time of Covid-19 is no longer the same.
Mask wearing and frequent temperature checks, hand sanitising and desk disinfection are now the norm, while transparent plastic dividers are put up in canteens and classrooms to prevent the spread of the virus when masks come off during meal time.
Face-to-face lessons are alternated with online learning as schools must not have more than one-third of its student population on campus at a time, according to guidelines from the Education Ministry.
Schools across Asia, from China to South Korea to Japan, as well as Singapore, have reopened in recent weeks as the coronavirus situation stabilised and the authorities pushed for resumption of normal daily life.
In Tokyo, classmates Rena Nakamura and Tamako Aoyama are finally able to see each other again after having spent the last three months mostly stuck at home as the number of Covid-19 cases climbed beyond 17,000.
Their school, Toshima Municipal Gyoko Elementary School, reopened on June 1 despite a new wave of infections that caused Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike to issue a “Tokyo Alert” last week.
Rena, 11, said the past months had been “extremely lonely”.
“We are now in our last year of elementary school, and I could not help but wonder if there is enough time to create memories,” she said.
For this month, the 144-year-old school has adopted a “split-class” system, with each class divided into two groups that attend school separately at different times in the day.
Principal Yutaka Arai told The Straits Times that this month will be used to ease its 338 students back into the routine of school.
Second-graders, for instance, had fun on their first week back in horticulture class, an outdoors session where they learnt how to plant tomatoes in cartons that they could then bring home.
However, teaching staff are on edge over the risk of school clusters, the first of which emerged late last month in Kitakyushu, an industrial city in south-western Fukuoka, with 13 elementary and junior high school children infected.
Toshima is implementing measures to avoid situations of what Japan brands the 3Cs (closed spaces, crowded places, close-contact settings), while extracurricular activities and sports events have been cancelled or put on hold.
The wearing of masks is now strictly enforced, while children must wash and disinfect their hands before they enter a classroom.
In South Korean schools, like everywhere else, new norms are aplenty. Schools will fully reopen by today, with the last two grades of elementary school among the last to go back.
A strict social distancing policy is now in place until Sunday in Seoul, Incheon city and Gyeonggi province, as the number of daily new cases – most linked to small cluster outbreaks in nightclubs, churches and a goods distribution centre – hovers around 50.
For Kyung Hee Elementary School in Seoul, this means only two out of six grades can be on campus at any one time, and pupils are constantly reminded by teachers, banners and posters to abide by rules such as wearing masks, washing hands frequently, keeping at least 1m apart, and opening the windows to allow better ventilation.
The school, which has 574 pupils, has so far spent 65 million won (S$75,300) on preventive measures including disinfection, thermal cameras and installing plastic screens on dining tables in the canteen.
“We cannot go back to life before the coronavirus, but we will do our best in the current situation for the safety of our pupils, our teachers, and everyone,” principal Ji Yeon-mi told The Straits Times.
To help pupils cope with the discomfort of wearing masks all day, the school allows teachers to take them out for a walk in the nearby forest or conduct lessons there.
“They can take off their masks if they keep a 2m distance apart and breathe in some fresh air,” said Ms Ji.
At Soong Eui Elementary School, first-grader Kim Kyu-rim said: “Teacher keeps telling us not to take off our masks, not to touch other people’s things and to sanitise our hands. I know it’s important. I don’t want to get the coronavirus.”
In Hong Kong, even as schools reopened from May 27, some parents voiced concerns about their children adapting after a long break.
Mr Augustine Soon said his 12-year-old daughter, who will return to Primary 6 in two weeks, is worried about her studies.
“Primary 6 is a leap to secondary school, so if she’s not in school for that long a time, I’m afraid she will have problems getting used to life in secondary school,” said Mr Soon, 46.
Public schools in Hong Kong have been closed since the Chinese New Year holidays in January in the light of the coronavirus outbreak. There are now over 1,000 cases.
Higher secondary students (Secondary 3 to 5) returned to school on May 27, while the younger cohorts are expected back in classes today and next Monday.
The Education Bureau has set out guidelines on precautionary measures to be taken in both public and private schools. These include having children seated 1m apart, mandatory mask wearing and hand sanitising, staggered recesses and shorter hours to avoid having them eat lunch in schools.
At the Singapore International School, lesson periods have been shortened. English teacher Nattaporn Brampy, 31, said a key change was delivering the same curriculum in a different way.
“I think that was one thing that was quite a challenge but interesting for all of us as a learning experience,” she said, adding that pupils have been excited to return to school and adapted quickly to the new norm.
Meanwhile, the older cross-border students from the mainland have also returned to schools in Hong Kong but are subject to various measures.
In Taiwan, the coronavirus’ impact on the school system was less severe. There are only over 400 cases reported, low compared with other regions in East Asia.
Taiwan has kept its schools open in the past four months, after initially delaying their opening for two weeks after the winter break.
Throughout the island, schools like the Affiliated Senior High School of National Taiwan Normal University have been relying on thermal temperature checks at their entrances – and once more at noon in the classrooms – to keep the virus off campus.
Assemblies have been cancelled, but extracurricular activities after school have continued as a means to make sure the students stay in a safe environment.
“We allow their daily gatherings because we worry that they might go elsewhere and possibly contract the virus,” said the school’s director of student affairs Lin Yung-shun.
The school has suggested that the students wear masks to school, and most of them do, but there are no strict government regulations that deem this necessary. Nor is social distancing a requirement.
For students like Chen Yuan-ling, the main difference is “we can’t get lunches delivered (via Foodpanda and Uber Eats) now, and senior prom got pushed back from March to July”.