As countries struggle to safely reopen schools, China is harnessing the power of its authoritarian system to offer in-person learning for its vast population of students — including 195 million students in kindergarten through 12th grade at public schools.

On the first day of school in Wuhan, where the coronavirus first emerged, officials reviewed the students’ travel histories and coronavirus test results. Local Communist Party cadres made sure teachers followed detailed instructions on hygiene and showed an “anti-epidemic spirit.”

The country has adopted many of the same sanitation and distancing procedures used elsewhere, but it has rolled them out with a forceful, command-and-control approach that brooks no dissent. It has mobilized battalions of local officials to inspect classrooms as well as to deploy apps and other technology to monitor students and staff members.

“The system is run like a military,” said Yong Zhao, a scholar at the University of Kansas who has studied education in China. “It just goes for it, no matter what anyone thinks.”

China’s all-out push is a stark contrast with the United States, where an absence of a national strategy or comprehensive testing has left school districts to craft their own approach, teachers’ unions have threatened to strike and college students have flouted rules against gatherings.

In China, where the virus has largely been under control for months, there is no such debate. The party controls the courts and the news media and quashes any perceived threats to its agenda. Local bureaucracies have little choice but to obey the orders of the all-powerful central government. Independent labor unions are banned and activism is discouraged. Administrators have corralled college students inside campuses, forbidding them to leave school grounds to eat or meet friends.

Many K-12 schools are already short on staff and resources, and educators say they are struggling to keep up with long lists of virus-control tasks. Some teachers are rising at 4 a.m. just to review protocols.

At public universities, which serve some 33 million students in China, anger has erupted over campus lockdowns that target students while exempting faculty and staff. Officials have also prohibited students from receiving takeout meals and packages.

“Do you plan to lock us up for life?” complained a sophomore on Weibo, a microblogging site.

  • Most spring classes at California State University will be held online. It’s the first university in the state to extend virtual learning through the entire 2020-2021 school year.

  • Michigan State University officials are trying to quell a spike in Covid-19 cases on campus. They have asked all students, who are already attending classes remotely, to self-quarantine for 14 days.

  • University of Michigan students are taking to TikTok to protest spartan conditions in apartments where they have been ordered to quarantine: “We were given no food, no masks, no gloves, no microwave, no bedsheets, no soap, no cleaning supplies, nothing.”

  • An outbreak at Boston College is growing.

  • Over the weekend, students attended large parties as football returned to Florida State University and the University of Kansas.

  • About 15,000 socially distanced fans watched a football game at the University of Texas at Austin, where the stadium normally seats 100,000.

  • Saint Joseph’s College of Maine is implementing a “study-in-place” program after at least nine cases of Covid-19 on campus.

  • Mark Ivester, the 57-year-old president of North Georgia Technical College, died this weekend of Covid-19.

  • In New York City, the teachers’ union might block reopening if the city doesn’t issue protective equipment, conduct testing and clean schools properly. Mayor Bill de Blasio said parents would have access to expedited testing for their children before schools reopen next week. He said 55 staff members had tested positive out of almost 17,000 tests.

  • A sweeping initiative to test and screen all 700,000 students and 75,000 employees in the Los Angeles public schools for the virus has started, with five cases last week among more than 5,400 children and adults tested, the district’s superintendent said.

  • Multiple schools across Connecticut are temporarily switching to remote learning as teachers and students test positive.

  • A high school in Massachusetts switched to remote learning after dozens of students attended a party.

  • In California, Oregon and Washington, remote learning policies implemented during the pandemic have helped some students learn through the fires. “They’re still able to be in school,” one parent told The Times, “even though the school burned to the ground.”


In New York City, more than 100,000 children are homeless — more than the entire school populations of Boston, Indianapolis and Rochester combined. The pandemic made bad conditions worse, threatening an enormous wave of new families without permanent housing when eviction moratoriums expire.

Now, unhoused families feel forgotten and aren’t sure if their children will be able to learn remotely from shelters.

Samantha M. Shapiro, a contributing writer for The Times Magazine, spent the last two years speaking with over a dozen homeless families. On the latest episode of The Sunday Read, she explores the lives of children living in the city’s shadows. Listen to her narrated story.

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