After four weeks cooped up at home, thousands of students went back to class yesterday as Beijing began to reopen public schools that were shut down at the height of the capital's SARS outbreak.
"I'm really excited to see all my friends again. I can't stop smiling," said Qing Zhu, 18, who was chatting with a classmate at Beijing No. 80 High School.
School closures April 24 sent home 1.7 million students. Most spent the past month at home, often in tiny apartments, told by schools not to see classmates to avoid possibly spreading the virus.
Classes for students planning to take university entrance tests resumed yesterday. Lower grades were to return later. Some schools will stay closed longer, holding classes on the Internet or television.
The measures were part of sweeping efforts to contain SARS in Beijing, the world's hardest-hit area with over 156 deaths reported and nearly 2,500 people infected.
Throughout China, the disease has killed 300 people, with 5,271 cases reported, the Health Ministry said.
China yesterday announced 26 new SARS cases -- the largest daily increase this week -- and four fatalities.
Three more SARS patients have died in Hong Kong, pushing the toll to 258, but there were just three new cases reported yesterday as infections stayed in the single digits for a 19th consecutive day.
Hong Kong has now suffered 1,722 cases of the disease, but 1,247 people have recovered and been discharged. Ten were released from hospitals yesterday.
At the No. 80 High School, a cluster of modern glass-and-tile buildings on the city's north side, about 400 seniors returned, all of whom must undergo temperature checks three times a day. Class sizes have been reduced and school buildings will be disinfected frequently.
Students began to return to campus Wednesday night and are to live in dormitories there while they study. Returnees were told to use assigned cafeteria seats so that if anyone falls ill the school can figure out who sat nearby.
Though no SARS cases have been reported at the school, principal Gao Yuchen said, "I am under a lot of pressure because the virus is invisible and the channel of infection is uncertain."
Students ate breakfast yesterday on fried dough sticks, steamed buns and soybean milk before heading out into the late spring sunshine for a flag-raising ceremony on the athletic field.
"I feel good about coming back. It's much better than being at home," said Wei Xinyao, 18, as he trudged across freshly mowed grass.
Also yesterday, state newspapers said China's Cabinet is warning that SARS could worsen already "grave" unemployment and is telling local officials to step up efforts to cushion its economic impact.
Even before the outbreak, communist leaders worried that China's slowing economic growth could lead to unrest, by failing to create enough jobs for millions thrown out of work by the overhaul of state industry. Already, groups of laid-off workers protest regularly in depressed areas throughout the country.
Economists say the outbreak could cut one percentage point off China's officially forecast growth this year of 7 percent.
Local officials "should think of employment promotion as an essential part of keeping society stable," said a Cabinet statement issued Wednesday.
At the peak of Beijing's epidemic, the city shut down cinemas, gymnasiums and other entertainment sites. They are still closed, along with restaurants and some hotels that closed for lack of business as thousands of families shut themselves in their homes or fled the city.
Though normal life has begun to resume, more than 27,000 people in Beijing who might have been exposed to the virus are still quarantined at home or in hospitals.
The Beijing No. 4 Middle School required students to report on their health and allowed only 20 in a class, said Yang Lingbo, an administrator. Students with temperatures above 37.2?C were barred from the school.
At the No. 80 High School, Gao said four students who had higher-than-normal temperatures Wednesday night were sent home.
Other students said the new measures were strict but necessary.
"It may not be convenient," said student Liu Sijing, 18. "But to support our school and for the good of our own health, I'll do it."