How to prepare for a school year like no other

By Beatrix Lockwood

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Parents, teachers and students nationwide are preparing for a school year like no other. As part of our #AskReuters Twitter chat series, Reuters gathered a group of experts to discuss how the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed K-12 education.

Below are edited highlights.

How can parents, students and teachers prepare for the coming school year?

“Slow things down! Take your expectations of what’s possible in classrooms and cut them in half. Generally, teachers haven’t been given nearly enough time to reconfigure their teaching practices. Give them some slack. Zoom fatigue is real.”

— Antero Garcia, assistant professor at Stanford University

“Being prepared means being flexible. Schools will likely have to open and close based on transmission rates in their communities and cases in schools.”

— John Bailey, visiting Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute

How will learning in 2020-2021 academic year look different, now that we’ve had a few months to plan?

“We hope to see districts adapt and improve quickly. There are a lot of thoughtful and creative reopening plans. Over the next few weeks, we will be highlighting promising approaches to address both health and learning needs, whether in person or remote.”

— Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education

“One of the questions of this school year is: Will remote instruction be improved? District officials say yes, but still many kids don’t have what they need tech-wise and much time this summer was spent working on health and safety, not instruction.”

— Matt Barnum, education policy reporter at Chalkbeat

Are there ways to replicate the social, emotional and non-academic experiences children get in school if they are not physically in the classroom?

“That is the hardest part for both K-12 and higher ed. Youth life is gradually resuming in places where the virus rates are low enough – distanced soccer and the rest. We need to get kids together physically at a distance to do some of these things.”

— Jal Mehta, professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education

Can you talk about the technology gap, and how it is impacting learning? What resources are available to breach the digital divide?

“Far too many students are being left behind from distance learning as they lack internet access at home and a dependable device. Many teachers also lack the connectivity they need to deliver remote instruction and support student learning.”

— National Parent Teachers Association

“From a culturally responsive-sustaining perspective, we see that young people access tech in ways that are not fully clear to those who design education – through video games, cellphones, and other digital devices that could also be used to curate a learning experience.”

— David E. Kirkland, executive director at The NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and The Transformation of Schools

How is the pandemic impacting children with special needs? What advice do you have to help kids with developmental challenges learn now?

“Communication will be key. Parents need to understand what schools are doing to provide their children with the needed interventions, related services and accommodations. And educators will need to check-in with parents to see what’s working.”

— Laura Schifter, lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education

Disruption can lead to transformation. How will education change, post-COVID?

“Frankly, we will have failed our children if this next decade isn’t transformational. We can’t wait any longer to take on the major systemic problems holding kids back. Now is the time to build a world grounded in the real needs and aspirations of all students.”

— Teach For America

“The transformation of education will be shaped by how we perceive the disruption. Education is always evolving and opportune. This is an opportunity to increase attention to inequity in education and the critical social and emotional needs of students ahead.”

— Rebecca Kullback, co-founder of LaunchWell and Metropolitan Counseling Associates

(Editing by Lauren Young and Aurora Ellis)

What you need to know about the coronavirus right now

(Reuters) – Here’s what you need to know about the coronavirus right now:

Concerns grow that kids spread virus

U.S. students are returning to school in person and online in the middle of a pandemic, and the stakes for educators and families are rising in the face of emerging research that shows children could be a risk for spreading the new coronavirus.

Several large studies have shown that the vast majority of children who contract COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, have milder illness than adults. And early reports did not find strong evidence of children as major contributors to the deadly virus that has killed more than 780,000 people globally.

But more recent studies are starting to show how contagious infected children, even those with no symptoms, might be.

Grave situation in renewed South Korea outbreak

Novel coronavirus infections have spread nationwide from a church in the South Korean capital, raising fears that one of the world’s virus mitigation success stories might yet suffer a disastrous outbreak, a top health official said on Thursday.

“The reason we take the recent situation seriously is because this transmission, which began to spread around a specific religious facility, is appearing nationwide through certain rallies,” Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip told a briefing.

The positive cases from the rallies include people from nine different cities and provinces across the country. Kim did not identify those places but said 114 facilities, including the places of work of infected people, were facing risk of transmission.

Brazil sees signs spread is slowing

The spread of the coronavirus in Brazil could be about to slow, the Health Ministry said, amid reports the transmission rate has fallen below a key level and early signs of a gradual decline in the weekly totals of cases and fatalities.

The cautious optimism comes despite figures again showing a steady rise in the number of confirmed cases and death toll in the last 24 hours, cementing Brazil’s status as the world’s second biggest COVID-19 hot spot after the United States.

According to ministry data, Brazil saw a drop in the number of new confirmed COVID-19 cases to 304,684 last week from a peak of 319,653 in the week ending July 25. The weekly death toll fell to 6,755 from a peak of 7,677 in the last week of July.

Trump touts convalescent plasma as treatment

U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday touted the use of convalescent plasma as a treatment for COVID-19 and suggested a reported decision by regulators to put on hold an emergency authorization for its use could be politically motivated. “I’ve heard fantastic things about convalescent plasma,” Trump told a briefing.

An emergency approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the use of blood plasma as a coronavirus treatment has been put on hold over concerns the data backing it was too weak, the New York Times reported on Wednesday. The FDA did not respond to a request for comment.

People who survive an infectious disease such as COVID-19 are left with blood plasma containing antibodies the body’s immune system created to fight off a virus. This can be transfused into newly infected patients to try to aid recovery.

China backs Wuhan park after pool party

Chinese state newspapers threw their support behind an amusement park in the central city of Wuhan on Thursday after pictures of a densely packed pool party at the park went viral overseas amid concerns about the spread of COVID-19.

Videos and photos of an electronic music festival at the Wuhan Maya Beach Water Park on July 11 raised eyebrows overseas, but reflected life returning to normal in the city where the virus causing COVID-19 was first detected, the official English-language China Daily newspaper said in a front-page story.

Another story in the Global Times, a tabloid published by the ruling Communist Party’s People’s Daily, cited Wuhan residents as saying the pool party reflected the city’s success in its virus-control efforts.

(Compiled by Linda Noakes and Karishma Singh; Editing by Mark Potter)

As U.S. schools reopen, concerns grow that kids spread coronavirus

By Deena Beasley

(Reuters) – U.S. students are returning to school in person and online in the middle of a pandemic, and the stakes for educators and families are rising in the face of emerging research that shows children could be a risk for spreading the new coronavirus.

Several large studies have shown that the vast majority of children who contract COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, have milder illness than adults. And early reports did not find strong evidence of children as major contributors to the deadly virus that has killed more than 780,000 people globally.

But more recent studies are starting to show how contagious infected children, even those with no symptoms, might be.

“Contrary to what we believed, based on the epidemiological data, kids are not spared from this pandemic,” said Dr. Alessio Fasano, director of the Mucosal Immunology and Biology Research Center at Massachusetts General Hospital and author of a new study.

Schools across the country are trying out a wide range of strategies to reopen, from all online classes to all in person. They are asking whether reopening schools with stringent mitigation measures is worth the risk to students, families and educators, given that keeping schools closed will likely harm academic progress, social and emotional development, mental health and food security.

Dr. Fasano and colleagues at Boston’s Massachusetts General and MassGeneral Hospital for Children found that infected children have a significantly higher level of virus in their airways than adults hospitalized in intensive care units for COVID-19 treatment. The high viral levels were found in infants through young adults, although most of the participants were age 11 to 17.

The study, published on Thursday in the Journal of Pediatrics, involved 192 participants ages 0-22 who were seen at urgent care clinics for suspected COVID-19. Forty-nine of them – a quarter of the total – tested positive for the virus. Another 18 were included in the study after being diagnosed with multi-system inflammatory syndrome, a serious COVID-related illness than can develop several weeks after an infection.

The research suggests that children can carry a high viral load, meaning they can be very contagious, regardless of their susceptibility to developing a COVID-19 illness.

“There has been some conflicting data out there about the degree to which children can be contagious,” said Dr. Marybeth Sexton, assistant professor of infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, who was not involved in the study. “This is further evidence that we may see children as sources of infection.”

She added more extensive research is needed.

“NOBODY IS SPARED”

A separate study published last month in JAMA Pediatrics found that older children hospitalized with COVID-19 had similar levels of the virus in their upper respiratory tract as adults, but children younger than five carried significantly greater amounts.

However, other medical groups show differing information over children’s potential to spread the virus. The American Academy of Pediatrics on Wednesday updated its guidelines to reflect “that children under 10 years may be less likely to become infected and spread infection, while those 10 years and older may spread it as efficiently as adults.”

A recent South Korean study found that people were most likely to contract the new coronavirus from members of their own households, with children aged nine and under least likely to be the first identified case.

Since most children infected with the coronavirus have very mild symptoms, they were largely overlooked as a demographic in the earlier stages of the pandemic, Dr. Fasano said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a pediatric COVID-19 hospitalization rate of 8 per 100,000 for March 1 to July 25, compared with a rate of 164.5 per 100,000 for adults.

Experts say the incidence of a related issue, which can develop after COVID-19 infection, multi-system inflammatory syndrome, is concerning. “The number of these patients is growing,” Dr. Fasano added.

Concerns have also been raised about cases of type 1 diabetes among children diagnosed with COVID-19. A small UK study found that the rate of diabetes almost doubled during the peak of Britain’s COVID-19 epidemic, suggesting a possible link between the two diseases that needs more investigation.

“The more we understand, the more it boils down to nobody is spared in this pandemic,” Dr. Fasano said.

(Reporting By Deena Beasley; Editing by Peter Henderson and Aurora Ellis)

U.S. public schools, focus of debate on reopening, are unsung economic force

By David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – As the debate rages over how to safely reopen U.S. schools this autumn, one factor weighs heavily: the nation’s 98,000 public “K-12” schools are a cornerstone of the economy, and a massive jobs engine.

Nearly 51 million American kids attend public elementary, middle and high schools, compared to about six million in private schools. The educated workforce and childcare the system creates have been key drivers of economic growth.

With a total workforce of about eight million Americans before the pandemic, kindergarten through 12th grade public education is also one of the largest U.S. employment sectors, exceeding construction, hospitals, finance and insurance and transportation and warehousing.

Total expenditures for these schools were $721 billion during the 2018 fiscal year, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

That is more than the U.S. Defense Department’s $671 billion budget that year, or the Pentagon’s $705 billion request for fiscal 2021.

The Trump administration, including U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, has been pushing for schools to physically reopen in the fall as U.S. coronavirus deaths near 140,000, the world’s highest. But it has not embraced any blueprint, including federal health guidelines, for how to do that safely.

Parents, teachers and local governments are expressing growing concern, after a string of coronavirus outbreaks at day care and summer school classrooms around the country.

On Monday, Los Angeles and San Diego said their 700,000-student public K-12 schools would start online-only education in August, citing “skyrocketing” coronavirus infection rates in California.

LOCAL DECISION

The White House has little real sway over whether public schools will reopen – just about 8% of U.S. K-12 public school funding comes from the federal government, with the remainder split fairly evenly between state and local governments, the Census Bureau data shows.

The Department of Education says public school spending is heavily skewed toward salaries and benefits, which made up 80% of the per-pupil total spending of $12,612 in 2018. About 11% goes to purchased services and 7% to supplies.

Maintaining these jobs is particularly important for local communities because of the economic multiplier effect, said Elise Gould, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. That $721 billion in public school spending in 2018 translated to about $1.08 trillion in direct GDP output, she calculates, not including the economic benefits of better-educated workers.

Although it rebounded somewhat in June, local government education employment is still down by 667,000 since March, when schools shifted largely to online instruction, Bureau of Labor Statistics data show.

That is nearly double the 351,000 jobs lost in local school districts after the 2008-2009 financial crisis, when tax revenues and budgets withered.

The losses could increase without federal aid to state and local governments, Gould said. “They’re faced with austerity and severe cuts and education is one of the places they look.”

Many of those laid off, including teaching assistants, counselors, and maintenance workers, are likely supported by enhanced unemployment benefits, scheduled to expire at the end of July.

It is difficult to say how much school shutdowns in the fall would affect the U.S. economy. Analysis from Washington-based think tanks has focused on the long-term cost to the U.S. economy of a less skilled workforce in years to come due to school closures. But there is little data to show how closures in the fall would impact U.S. jobs and the GDP immediately.

WHO’S WATCHING THE KIDS?

Online-only K-12 education or closed schools may pull parents, and especially women, out of the workforce, particularly those with very young children that need more supervision.

According to a recent McKinsey & Co report on reopening schools, about 26.8 million Americans, or about 16% of the workforce, are dependent on child care in order to work.

Physically opening schools a few days a week, as has been proposed in New York City, will not help much without more federal aid for child care, said Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California-Berkeley.

“This cost would be offset by the surge in labor supply and income, as parents flock back to work, helping to jump-start the economy,” Fuller said.

DeVos told CNN on Sunday that because children contract the virus at a far lower rate than adults, there is little danger for them to be back in schools.

“We know that schools across the country look very different and that there’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all approach to everything,” DeVos told Fox News Sunday.

Despite the threat to their jobs, teachers are not pushing to reopen schools. A USA Today poll at the end of May revealed that one in five teachers said they were unlikely to return to their classrooms in the fall.

A Kaiser Family Foundation study found that nearly 1.5 million U.S. teachers, almost one in four, were at greater risk of serious illness if infected with the coronavirus due to age or existing health conditions.

(Reporting by David Lawder; Editing by Heather Timmons and Alistair Bell)

Exclusive: How elite U.S. college students brought Covid-19 home from campus

By Anna Irrera and Steve Stecklow

(Reuters) – Like many American colleges, Vanderbilt University in Nashville announced last month it was closing its dormitories and putting classes online because of the growing threat of coronavirus. It said it was acting “out of an abundance of caution” after a local healthcare worker had tested positive for the disease.

The message was lost on many students.

Before leaving campus and returning to their homes and families throughout the United States and abroad, more than 100 Vanderbilt students attended parties, ignoring the school’s explicit instructions not to do so. They crowded into apartment complexes and other locations, and posed for group pictures they posted on Instagram. Many celebrated St. Patrick’s Day six days early – on the same day New York City announced it was cancelling its traditional annual parade.

One photo of a March 11 party, posted on Instagram and seen by Reuters, shows a student in a makeshift hazmat suit, a black mask and green bowler hat with shamrocks, as a large group of students party in the background. “I dare you to give me corona,” reads the picture’s caption. The photo’s location jokingly claims to be “Wuhan, China” — the origin of the global pandemic.

Some Vanderbilt students later learned they were infected with the virus, known as COVID-19. A private online group of students who say they have contracted coronavirus had 107 members this week, with most stating they had mild or moderate symptoms, according to posts seen by Reuters. Vanderbilt University Medical Center, an independent hospital near the campus, also reported 86 employees have tested positive for coronavirus to date, according to a spokeswoman.

The example of Vanderbilt – a prestigious, private research institution in America’s South – shows that risky behavior by some young people extended far beyond the spring break mob scenes on Florida beaches that emerged last month. It illustrates the role students at some colleges – particularly those with a global footprint – have played in the pandemic.

Other colleges have also reported coronavirus outbreaks. Forty-four students at the University of Texas at Austin tested positive for the disease after returning from spring break in Mexico, according to a state university spokeswoman. In March, the University of Tampa said five students traveling together during spring break had tested positive.

In a statement, Vanderbilt said: “Just as for our peers around the country, COVID-19 has created unprecedented challenges for our community as we have sought, above all, to protect the health and safety of our students, faculty and staff. Vanderbilt has regularly communicated with our community about the essential steps the university is taking, and that they must take, to limit the spread of disease.”

The university declined to answer questions about how many students have contracted coronavirus, citing federal student privacy law.

TRAVELS IN EUROPE

Vanderbilt began its spring break earlier than many schools. It took place between Feb. 29 and March 8, a time in which the pandemic, which began in China, was beginning to seriously affect Europe, but hadn’t yet significantly hit the United States.

“Vandy” is an elite school with a large cohort of well-to-do students. Many travel abroad during spring break, especially Europe. They often visit other Vanderbilt students attending study-abroad programs.

On Feb. 25, Vanderbilt warned students not to travel to China or South Korea – two coronavirus hot spots – and to reconsider making non-essential trips to other countries with serious outbreaks. International students were advised not to leave the United States at all.

One country that hadn’t yet reported many cases was Spain. Max Schulman, a Vanderbilt junior, said he traveled to Barcelona with more than a dozen classmates and estimated that about 50 Vanderbilt students in all were there during spring break. Spain has since emerged as one of the epicenters of the global outbreak.

Schulman said he felt tired, restless and “delirious” on his flight back. Instead of returning to campus, he went to his family’s home in Long Island, New York, and later tested positive for coronavirus.

Other Vanderbilt students who traveled to Spain and other European countries returned to the Nashville campus.

On March 8, an online petition started by Chinese first-year student Yihan Li asked Vanderbilt to cancel classes to protect students’ health, as the number of infections in the Nashville area slowly rose. “There have been two confirmed cases in Nashville and our students are returning from all over the world after the spring break,” the petition stated. “It is at great risk to hold classes as normal.” More than 2,000 people signed. Vanderbilt has about 12,000 full-time undergraduate and graduate students, according to its website.

The same day, the university informed students that there were no confirmed cases on campus. It also noted that an unidentified student who had studied abroad but hadn’t returned to Nashville had tested positive. The announcement followed a story in the campus newspaper, the Vanderbilt Hustler, that a student in a program in Italy had later tested positive in Chicago.

Classes resumed on Monday, March 9. By the end of the day, the school disclosed that several students on campus reported they had been exposed to an unidentified individual who tested positive that day. It announced it was cancelling classes for the rest of the week and would soon move them online through March. The announcement added: “To be clear, the university will remain open.”

At the time, scores of other American colleges and universities were taking steps to cancel classes and switch to online instruction, according to data compiled by Bryan Alexander, a senior scholar at Georgetown University.

A picture of Vanderbilt’s announcement appeared on a satirical Instagram account with this comment: “Let spring break pt. 2 begin.” That night, some students began partying to both commiserate and celebrate over the end of classes, one student told Reuters.

On March 10, Vanderbilt issued a warning to campus residents: “There should be no parties/gatherings; students are encouraged to maintain social distance and minimize interactions with others.” The college was two days ahead of Nashville’s mayor in urging social distancing.

Some seniors worried their college days were coming to an abrupt end and the campus would soon clear out, students said. Their fears soon came true: On March 11, Vanderbilt told students that a healthcare worker at Vanderbilt University Medical Center had tested positive and classes would go on line for the rest of the semester. Undergraduates living on campus should leave within four days.

PARTY TIME

Planned St. Patrick’s Day parties were moved up. The event is an annual tradition for many Vanderbilt students, who refer to it as “St Fratty’s” because many parties are held at fraternity houses.

“We’re all here and we’re ready to fire one last time before our college careers are ended” by coronavirus, stated one Facebook post announcing an off-campus St Patrick’s Day party. Several students who attended the party later tested positive for coronavirus, according to a student. Reuters could not independently confirm this.

Another “St Fratty’s” celebration kicked off in the rooftop courtyard of Wesley Place apartments, a residential complex that is home to third-year and fourth-year students. Instagram pictures depict clusters of students clad in green, chatting in close proximity, drinking from beer cans and red cups, and posing together for pictures.

In one photo, a group of seven young women dressed in green huddle together, hugging and holding hands. A photo collage posted by Vanderbilt’s chapter of the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority showed small groups of young, green-clad women smiling, hugging and posing for pictures. The sorority didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Following the Wesley Place party, students dispersed to other locations, including off-campus fraternity houses and another apartment complex, according to students and social media posts.

One video shows several dozen students in a backyard dancing, hugging and drinking. Text overlaying the video reads, “Schools out forever,” while the caption reads, “the luck of the Irish did not grace Vanderbilt this st frattys.”

That same day, March 11, three news developments smashed America’s complacency about the disease. President Donald Trump imposed a 30-day ban on foreigners traveling from Europe, the National Basketball Association suspended its season, and movie star Tom Hanks announced he and his wife had tested positive for coronavirus in Australia.

Some Vanderbilt students soon were reporting in private chat groups that they had contracted coronavirus.

A private group called “Covid Family” that consists of students who said they had contracted the virus grew to 107 members. In one poll of 80 students, a dozen answered “yes” to whether they had coronavirus, according to a screenshot. Reuters couldn’t determine if the self-reported diagnoses were accurate.

One infected student interviewed by Reuters attended off-campus parties and experienced symptoms on March 15 after returning home. The student’s mother also developed mild symptoms. The student said the exact source of the infection was impossible to know.

Sophia Yan, a first-year Vanderbilt student from China, told Reuters she found out she had contracted coronavirus upon returning home to the Chinese city of Shenzhen on March 17. She said she didn’t attend any parties on campus, leading her to suspect the virus was more widespread at Vanderbilt than students and the administration realize.

She said she believes the university should have required students to report all their travels during spring break and released information about any who had tested positive, such as their whereabouts and what classes they attended.

“Unfortunately, Vanderbilt’s lack of effective measures largely reflects how the United States as a whole is dealing with this crisis,” she said. “To combat this pandemic, U.S. federal and state governments, as well as the American people, must recognize the severity and urgency of the matter.”

Vanderbilt didn’t respond to a specific question about Yan’s comments.

But it said because of federal student privacy law, “we are unable to disclose widely within the Vanderbilt community personally identifiable information about any student who has tested positive for COVID-19.”

Netra Rastogi, a Vanderbilt sophomore, doesn’t fault the administration. “I don’t think they realized that so many students at Vanderbilt wouldn’t take this whole situation seriously.”

(reporting by Anna Irrera and Steve Stecklow; editing by Janet McBride)

Iran social media posts call for more protests after plane disaster

By Babak Dehghanpisheh

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iranians called on social media on Wednesday for fresh demonstrations a week after the shooting down of a passenger plane, seeking to turn the aftermath of the crash into a sustained campaign against Iran’s leadership.

Protesters, with students at the forefront, have staged daily rallies in Tehran and other cities since Saturday, when after days of denials the authorities admitted bringing down a Ukrainian plane last week, killing all 176 aboard.

“We’re coming to the streets,” one posting circulating on social media said on Wednesday, urging people to join nationwide demonstrations against a “thieving and corrupt government”.

Most of those killed on the plane were Iranians or dual citizens, many of them students returning to studies abroad from holiday visits with their families.

It remains to be seen whether the protests will lead to sustained violence. After several days of unrest, when images posted to the internet showed demonstrators being beaten by the police and shocked with electric batons, protests on Tuesday appear to have been quieter. Two months ago, authorities killed hundreds of demonstrators to put down protests sparked by fuel price hikes.

The plane was downed by air defenses on Jan. 8 when the armed forces were on high alert for U.S. reprisals following tit-for-tat military strikes, the latest escalation in a crisis that has rumbled on for years over Iran’s nuclear program.

Iran has dismissed the idea of a new deal to resolve the nuclear row, as proposed by U.S. President Donald Trump and described by Britain’s prime minister as a “Trump deal.”

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Trump, who quit an existing nuclear pact in 2018, broke his promises.

The military and top officials apologized profusely for the “unforgivable error” that brought the plane down and said it would prosecute those to blame, in a bid to quell the outrage.

Thousands of protesters have been shown in videos gathering in the past four days in cities across Iran. Many have been outside universities. Tehran’s central Azadi Square has also been a focus. But the scale of protests and unrest is difficult to determine due to restrictions on independent reporting.

State-affiliated media has offered few details on rallies.

OUTRAGE

Police have denied shooting at protesters and say officers were told to show restraint. The judiciary said it had arrested 30 people but would show tolerance to “legal protests”.

Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency said a person who had posted a video online last week of a missile striking the plane has been taken into custody by the Revolutionary Guards, the elite force that said one of its operators shot down the plane.

Iranians were outraged the military took days to admit it had shot down Ukraine International Airlines flight 752. They asked why the plane had been allowed to take off at a time of high tension.

Iran had launched missile strikes against U.S. targets in Iraq hours earlier in retaliation for a U.S. drone strike that killed a top Iranian commander in Iraq on Jan. 3.

Security camera footage showed two missiles, fired 30 seconds apart, hitting the plane after takeoff, the New York Times reported. U.S. intelligence officials said on Jan. 9 heat signatures of two surface-to-air missiles were detected.

The disaster and unrest have piled pressure on the Iran’s rulers, who are already struggling to keep the economy running under stringent U.S. sanctions imposed after Washington withdrew from the nuclear pact Tehran had with world powers.

Britain’s ambassador to Tehran was detained, accused of attending a protest. He said he was paying respects at a vigil for victims.

Judicial officials urged the authorities to expel the envoy and social media posts said he had left. The foreign ministry in Britain, which has long had strained ties with Iran, said he was on a previously planned trip and was not leaving permanently.

On Thursday, London hosts a meeting of Canada, Ukraine, Britain and other nations who had citizens on the downed plane to discuss legal action against Iran, Ukraine said.

Canada, which had 57 citizens on the flight, has sent investigators to Iran, where they toured the crash site on Tuesday, Iranian media reported.

(Reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh and Parisa Hafezi and the London bureau; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Peter Graff)

Highway blockade reveals splits in Hong Kong protest movement

By Jessie Pang and Kate Lamb

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters partially unblocked a key highway on Friday and then blocked it again during the evening rush hour, exposing splits in a movement that has been largely leaderless in months of often violent unrest.

Activists closed the Tolo highway this week, clashing with police and throwing debris and petrol bombs on the road linking the largely rural New Territories with the Kowloon peninsula to the south.

They turned the Chinese University campus next door and several other universities into fortresses, stockpiled with petrol bombs and bows and arrows, amid some of the worst violence in the former British colony in decades.

But many protesters left the Chinese University after some allowed the partial reopening of the highway on Friday, taking others by surprise.

“I am disappointed about the decision to reopen the Tolo highway and it’s not our consensus,” one student who gave his name as Cheung, 18, told Reuters.

“I was asleep when they had closed-door meetings. I was worried and scared after I realized what had happened and most protesters had left. I was worried the police might storm in again because so few people are left. Some protesters from the outside have gone too far.”

Most protesters had left by late evening but the road remained closed.

The Cross-Harbour Tunnel, outside the barricaded Polytechnic University where protesters have practised firing bows and arrows and throwing petrol bombs in a half-empty swimming pool, remained shut.

Students and protesters have barricaded at least five campuses in the Chinese-ruled city. Police have kept their distance from the campuses for more than two days, saying both sides should cool off, but many observers are afraid of what will happen if and when they move in.

Activists also littered Nathan Road in the Kowloon district of Mong Kok, a frequent venue for protests, with bricks and set a street barricade on fire.

NO LONGER SAFE

The week has seen a marked intensification of the violence.

A 70-year-old street cleaner died on Thursday after being hit on the head by one of several bricks police said had been thrown by “masked rioters”. On Monday, police blamed a “rioter” for dousing a man in petrol and setting him on fire. The victim is in critical condition.

On the same day, police shot a protester in the abdomen. He was in stable condition.

“We can no longer can say Hong Kong is a safe city,” Chief Secretary for Administration Matthew Cheung told a briefing.

Protesters are angry at perceived Chinese meddling in the city since it returned to Beijing rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula guaranteeing its colonial-era freedoms. Their demands include full democracy and an independent investigation into perceived police brutality.

China denies interfering and has blamed Western countries for stirring up trouble. Police say they are acting with restraint in the face of potentially deadly attacks.

China and Hong Kong both condemned an attack in London on Thursday by a “violent mob” on Hong Kong’s justice secretary, the first direct altercation between demonstrators and a government minister.

Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng, who was in London to promote Hong Kong as a “dispute resolution and deal-making hub”, was targeted by a group of protesters who shouted “murderer” and “shameful”.

The British police said a woman had been taken to hospital with an injury to her arm and that they were investigating but no arrests had been made.

Hong Kong sank into recession for the first time in a decade in the third quarter, government data confirmed on Friday, with its economy shrinking by 3.2% from the previous quarter on a seasonally adjusted basis.

Organizers of the annual Clockenflap music and arts festival, due to take place from Nov. 22-24, said it had been canceled because of the unrest.

Video footage obtained by Reuters of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army garrison headquarters near Hong Kong’s Central business district showed more than a dozen troops conducting what appeared to be anti-riot drills against people pretending to be protesters carrying black umbrellas.

The PLA has stayed in the barracks since 1997 but China has warned that any attempt at independence will be crushed.

(Reporting by Donny Kwok, Felix Tam, Twinnie Siu, Jessie Pang, Anne Marie Roantree and Marius Zaharia; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree and Nick Macfie; Editing by Robert Birsel and Philippa Fletcher)

Hong Kong students hunker down as government dismisses curfew rumors

By Kate Lamb and Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters paralyzed parts of the city for a fourth successive day on Thursday, forcing schools to close and blocking highways, as students built campus barricades and the government dismissed rumors of a curfew.

Protesters have torched vehicles and buildings, hurled petrol bombs at police stations and trains, dropped debris from bridges on to traffic below and vandalized shopping malls and campuses, raising questions about how and when more than five months of unrest can be brought to an end.

A 70-year-old street cleaner who was believed to have been hit in the head by a brick on Wednesday died on Thursday, the hospital said. Police said he was believed to have been hit by “hard objects hurled by masked rioters” during his lunch break.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, speaking in Brazil, said stopping violence was the most urgent task right now for Hong Kong, China’s state CCTV television reported.

He said China continued to firmly support Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam. China has a garrison of up to 12,000 troops in Hong Kong who have kept to barracks, but it has vowed to crush any attempts at independence, a demand from a very small minority of protesters.

The unrest was triggered by what many see as the stifling by China of freedoms guaranteed under the “one country, two systems” formula put in place when Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

China denies interfering in Hong Kong and has blamed Western countries, including Britain and the United States, for stirring up trouble.

Anger grew over perceived police brutality as the protests intensified. Police deny being heavy handed and say they have shown restraint in the face of potentially deadly attacks.

“HIGH-SPIRITED RIOTERS”

Thousands of students hunkered down at several universities on Thursday, surrounded by piles of food, bricks, petrol bombs, catapults and other homemade weapons.

Police said the Chinese University, in the New Territories, had become a “weapons factory and an arsenal” with bows and arrows and catapults.

“Their acts are another step closer to terrorism,” Chief Superintendent (Public Relations) Tse Chun-chung told a briefing, referring to protests on campuses across the Chinese-ruled city.

He also said police would temporarily avoid directly clashing with “high-spirited rioters” to give themselves a breather and avoid injuries.

Police said arrows were fired at officers from Hong Kong Polytechnic University in the morning. Several Hong Kong universities announced there would be no classes on campuses for the rest of the year.

During the apparent lull in police action, thousands were milling about on Nathan Road, the main artery leading south through the center of Kowloon to the harbor, building a wall from bricks. Police had fired tear gas earlier on the street earlier in the evening.

Baptist University, next to a People’s Liberation Army base in Kowloon Tong, issued an “urgent appeal”, telling students to stay away from campus.

“Your safety is so dear to our hearts and to your parents’ and friends’ hearts,” it said. “Please stay away from harm’s way.”

China’s Global Times tabloid, owned by the official newspaper of the ruling Communist Party, the People’s Daily, said on Twitter that the Hong Kong government was expected to announce a weekend curfew after some of the worst violence in decades in the former British colony.

It deleted the post after a short time. The Hong Kong government said the rumors were “totally unfounded”.

PETROL BOMBS AND BRICKS

Hundreds of protesters occupied roads in the city’s business district, home to some of the world’s most expensive real estate, in the middle of the day.

Across the harbor, black-clad protesters and students maintained their blockade of major roads, including the entrance to the Cross-Harbour Tunnel that links Hong Kong island to the Kowloon area, and a highway between Kowloon and the rural New Territories.

Police fired tear gas near the tunnel early on Thursday to try to clear the protesters. Protesters threw petrol bombs at the Kowloon-side tunnel turnstiles late in the evening and the tunnel remained closed.

At the Polytechnic University, near the same tunnel entrance, hundreds of students wearing gas masks readied for confrontation. They were practising throwing petrol bombs and archery in a half-empty swimming pool.

Boxes of petrol bombs were placed at vantage points overlooking roads.

Violence has escalated in recent days, with police shooting and wounding one protester at close range and one man described as a “rioter” dousing a man with petrol before setting him on fire. Several others have been wounded.

The man who was shot was in stable condition. The man who was lit on fire suffered burns to his torso and head, and was in critical condition.

(Reporting by Sarah Wu, Kate Lamb, Jessie Pang, Donny Kwok, Twinnie Siu, Anne Marie Roantree, Clare Jim, Ryan Chang and Felix Tam; Writing by Farah Master and Nick Macfie; Editing by Gerry Doyle, Robert Birsel and Alex Richardson)

Hong Kong office workers, schoolmates denounce police shooting of teen

By Clare Jim and Yiming Woo

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong office workers and high-school students turned out in their hundreds under a sweltering midday sun on Wednesday to denounce a policeman for shooting and wounding a teenager during the most violent clashes in nearly four months of unrest.

The office workers marched to Chater Garden in the Central business district as the students, some in the same class as the wounded 18-year-old, demonstrated outside his New Territories school.

More than 100 people were wounded during Tuesday’s turmoil, the Hospital Authority said, as anti-China demonstrators took to the streets across the Chinese-ruled territory, throwing petrol bombs and attacking police who responded with tear gas and water cannon. Five remained in a serious condition with 35 stable.

Thirty police were injured, with five in hospital.

During one clash, an officer shot an 18-year-old school student in the chest with a live round after coming under attack with a metal bar, video footage showed. The teen was in stable condition in hospital on Wednesday.

Protesters outside the wounded student’s school, the Tsuen Wan Public Ho Chuen Yiu Memorial College, chanted “Free Hong Kong”, condemned the police and urged a thorough investigation.

“(It’s) ridiculous, it can’t happen, and it should not be happening in Hong Kong,” said one 17-year-old who goes to the same school.

“It really disappointed me and let me down about the policeman. I don’t know why they took this action to deal with a Form Five student. Why do you need to shoot? It’s a real gun.”

Protesters have previously been hit with anti-riot bean-bags rounds and rubber bullets and officers have fired live rounds in the air, but this was the first time a demonstrator had been shot with a live round.

Police said the officer involved was under serious threat and acted in self-defense in accordance with official guidelines.

Police said they arrested 269 people – 178 males and 91 females – aged 12 to 71 during the Tuesday turmoil, while officers fired about 1,400 rounds of tear gas, 900 rubber bullets and six live rounds.

The protests, on the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, were aimed at propelling the activists’ fight for greater democracy onto the international stage and embarrassing the city’s political leaders in Beijing.

The former British colony has been rocked by months of protests over a now-withdrawn extradition bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland China for trial but have evolved into calls for democracy, among other demands.

The outpouring of opposition to the Beijing-backed government has plunged the city into its biggest political crisis in decades and poses the gravest popular challenge to President Xi Jinping since he came to power.

The pro-establishment Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong condemned Tuesday’s violence and urged the government to impose emergency laws to resolve the crisis.

‘CHILLING DISREGARD’

Many shops and business closed on Tuesday in anticipation of the violence, which is taking a growing toll on the city’s economy as it faces its first recession in a decade and the central government grapples with a U.S.-China trade war and a global slowdown.

Standard & Poor’s cut its Hong Kong economic growth forecast on Tuesday to 0.2 percent for this year, down from its forecast of 2.2 percent in July, blaming tension in the city for plunging retail sales and a sharp dip in tourism.

The Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce condemned the violence.

“Extremists’ chilling disregard for the rule of law is not only affecting Hong Kong’s reputation as an international financial and business center, but also crippling many small businesses and threatening the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens,” it said in a statement.

The protesters come from wide-ranging backgrounds. Of 96 charged after violence on Sunday, eight were under 18, some were students, others had jobs ranging from waiter, teacher and surveyor to sales manager, construction worker and a hotel employee.

Protesters are angry about what they see as creeping interference by Beijing in their city’s affairs despite a promise of autonomy in the “one country, two systems” formula under which Hong Kong returned to China in 1997.

China dismisses accusations it is meddling and has accused foreign governments, including the United States and Britain, of stirring up anti-China sentiment.

The protesters are increasingly focusing their anger on mainland Chinese businesses and those with pro-Beijing links, daubing graffiti on store fronts and vandalizing outlets in the heart of the financial center.

The Bank of China (Hong Kong) said two of its branches came under attack on Tuesday.

“The bank expresses its deepest anger and strongly condemns this illegal, violent behavior,” it said in a statement.

(Reporting by Clare Jim and Yimin Woo; Additional reporting by Twinnie Siu, Jessie Pang, Bill Rigby, Donny Kwok, Sumeet Chatterjee; Writing by Farah Master, Anne Marie Roantree and Nick Macfie; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Hong Kong children form chains of protest as economic worries grow

Secondary school students hold placards as they join a human chain protesting against what they say is police brutality against protesters, after clashes at Wan Chai district in Hong Kong, China September 9, 2019. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

By Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hundreds of uniformed school students, many wearing masks, formed human chains in districts across Hong Kong on Monday in support of anti-government protesters after another weekend of clashes in the Chinese-ruled city.

Metro stations reopened after some were closed on Sunday amid sometimes violent confrontations, although the mood in the Asian financial hub remained tense.

Early on Monday, before school started, rows of students and alumni joined hands chanting “Hong Kong people, add oil”, a phrase that has become a rallying cry for the protest movement.

“The school-based human chain is the strongest showcase of how this protest is deep-rooted in society, so deep-rooted that it enters through the school students,” said Alan Leong, an alumnus of Wah Yan College in the city’s Kowloon district.

Three months of protests over a now withdrawn extradition bill have evolved into a broader backlash against the government and greater calls for democracy.

Police said they had arrested 157 people over the previous three days, including 125 males and 32 females aged 14 to 63, bringing the total number of arrests to more than 1,300.

The former British colony is facing its first recession in a decade as the protests scare off tourists and bite into retail sales in one of the world’s most popular shopping destinations.

Tourist arrivals plunged 40% in August year on year, said Paul Chan, the city’s finance secretary, with sustained clashes blocking roads and paralyzing parts of the city. Disruptions at the city’s international had also hit the tourism industry.

“The most worrying thing is that the road ahead is not easily going to turn any better,” Chan said in his blog on Sunday, noting that some hotels had seen room rates plunge up to 70%.

Activists started fires in the street and vandalized a Mass Transit Railway (MTR) station in the main business district of Central on Sunday after thousands rallied peacefully at the U.S. consulate, calling for help in bringing democracy to the special administrative region.

The students, brandishing posters with the protesters’ five demands for the government, called on authorities to respond to the promises of freedom, human rights and rule of law, promised when Britain returned Hong Kong to Chinese rule in 1997. One of the five demands – to formally withdraw the extradition bill – was announced last week by embattled leader Carrie Lam, but protesters are angry about her failure to call an independent inquiry into accusations of police brutality against demonstrators.

U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet urged people to protest peacefully and called on authorities to respond to any acts of violence with restraint.

The protesters’ other demands include the retraction of the word “riot” to describe demonstrations, the release of all those arrested and the right for Hong Kong people to choose their own leaders.

A journalist wearing a hard hat and protective goggles at a police briefing condemned the use by police of pepper spray against media over the weekend.

‘CRUSHED’

In a rare public appearance, Lam walked around the central business district with the city’s Transport and Housing Secretary Frank Chan and MTR officials to inspect the damaged station, where she chatted with staff and commuters.

Dressed in a black suit, she examined electronic ticketing machines and boarded up windows smashed the previous day, according to footage by public broadcaster RTHK.

Following the demonstration at the U.S. consulate on Sunday, Hong Kong’s government warned foreign lawmakers not to interfere in the city’s internal affairs after thousands of protesters called on U.S. President Donald Trump to “liberate” the city.

Hong Kong returned to China in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula that guarantees freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland. Many Hong Kong residents fear Beijing is eroding that autonomy.

China denies the accusation of meddling in the city and says Hong Kong is an internal affair. It has denounced the protests, accusing the United States and Britain of fomenting unrest, and warned of the damage to the economy.

Chinese state media on Monday said Hong Kong was an inseparable part of China and any form of secessionism “will be crushed”.

The China Daily newspaper said Sunday’s rally was proof foreign forces were behind the protests and warned demonstrators should “stop trying the patience of the central government”.

Pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong was released from police custody after breaching bail conditions following his arrest in August when he was charged along with a number of other prominent activists for inciting and participating in an unauthorized assembly.

A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States was monitoring events.

“The freedoms of expression and assembly are core values that we share with the people of Hong Kong, and those freedoms must be vigorously protected. As the president has said, ‘They’re looking for democracy and I think most people want democracy’,” the official said.

(Reporting by Jessie Pang, Anne Marie Roantree, Donny Kwok and Twinnie Siu; Additional reporting by Joseph Campbell in Hong Kong, Roberta Rampton in Washington and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Farah Master; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Robert Birsel)