After a summer of being tear gassed, can Hong Kong protesters go back to being students?

(CNN)Welcome signs, colorful banners and campus maps are plastered over Hong Kong's colleges and high schools.

It's the first week of school, but there's one problem -- thousands of students are missing from the classrooms.
At 10 of the city's 13 universities, students are staging a class boycott, and student union leaders estimate that more than 100 secondary schools also planned class strikes.
    It's the latest move in pro-democracy protests that have rocked Hong Kong for the past three months, and the students say it will continue until the government responds to all of their five core demands. So far, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has acquiesced to one: the full withdrawal of the bill that would have allowed extradition to mainland China, and which sparked the protests in June.
      Hong Kong protesters' 5 demands

      1. Fully withdraw the extradition bill
      2. Set up an independent inquiry to probe police brutality
      3. Withdraw the characterization of protests as "riots"
      4. Release those arrested at protests
      5. Implement universal suffrage in Hong Kong

      While the demonstrations have spanned all demographics, young people have become the face of the movement, and some have been at the most violent, extreme end of the clashes. More than 1,100 protesters have been arrested this summer -- one 13-year-old was arrested for being in possession of two petrol bombs, police say.
      Now students are going through the motions of starting a new school year, buying books and registering for classes. It's a familiar routine, but nothing about it feels normal.
      "The city is dying," said Kris Fan, a 17-year-old high-school student. "We can't just sit here and read our books. That's no use. I think the city is more important than our academics."
      Students at Ying Wa College in Hong Kong boycotted classes and the school year opening ceremony on September 2, 2019.
      After a summer holiday defined by tear gas, political activism, and the worst political crisis Hong Kong has seen in decades, many young people say they simply can't return to normal student life.

      One summer can change everything

      When 21-year-old Davin Kenneth Wong watched the science fiction television show "Stranger Things" with his friends last month, he was struck by its parallels with his own life.
      In the Netflix show, a band of rebellious kids (plus one with superpowers) do battle against otherworldly monsters to save their hometown. "One summer can change everything," the trailer said.
      "We totally feel that," said Wong, president of Hong Kong University's Student Union (HKUSU). "This summer really changed everything. We were fighting real-life 'Stranger Things' -- but instead of fighting something from another dimension, we're fighting the police."
      Usually, students spend their summers hanging out with their friends, going to the beach, and resting up. Instead, this summer they transformed into seasoned protest veterans, strapping on gas masks and hard hats.
      Students boycott classes at the Chinese University of Hong Kong on September 2, 2019.
      Student unions helped from the sidelines, encouraging students to attend large rallies. Hong Kong University's union also engaged lawyers to provide assistance to arrested students, Wong said. Law students offered protesters legal advice, and medical undergrads volunteered as frontline medics.
      In some ways, we've seen this before -- student activism has a long history in Hong Kong.
      In 1989, thousands of the city's college and high school students staged rallies to support students protesting in Beijing's Tiananmen Square before the crackdown. The Hong Kong Federation of Students, a cross-college students' union, held fundraisers in support of their mainland counterparts' fight for democracy.
      Students struck again in 2003 and 2012, blocking legislation they felt gave Beijing too much power. But Hong Kong's young people were truly catapulted onto the global stage during the 2014 Umbrella Revolution. Protest figureheads like Joshua Wong, then just 17 years old, were depicted worldwide as teenage revolutionaries.
      Students take part in a school boycott rally on September 2, 2019, in Hong Kong.
      The 2014 movement ultimately failed, with the electoral system remaining uchanged. Some of its most high-profile figures, including former student leaders Nathan Law and Sixtus "Baggio" Leung, ran for office and won legislative seats -- but they were disqualified in a heated controversy in 2017.
      The tensions of that failed movement have reemerged this summer -- but this time, the students have learned from the lessons of 2014. There is no central figure with star power. Their movement is leaderless, fluid, and democratic, as well as darker and more nihilistic.
      Protesters began masking their faces as the violence ramped up this summer. Recent weeks have seen young people setting large fires in the street and throwing petrol bombs at riot police, who respond with tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons.
      The escalation in violence stems from feelings of desperation, as Hong Kong's young people feel like time is running out in their fight for democracy. The semi-autonomous city currently enjoys certain freedoms and its own legal system under an agreement between former colonial power Britain and China. That 1997 deal ends in 2047, when Hong Kong will be likely absorbed into Xi Jinping's authoritarian China.
      The fear around that deadline is evident in the protesters' rhetoric. Posters around the city and on campuses read, "If we burn, you burn with us," and "Give me democracy or give me death."
      "We're losing," said Fan. "We're losing things like freedom of press, freedom without fear. We're just fighting for what we have now."
      Sticky notes are seen on a "Lennon Wall" at an anti-government student rally on August 22, 2019, in Hong Kong.

      Model students no more

      Families in Hong Kong have typically heavily emphasized educational achievement, and students are often laser-focused on getting stellar grades. The idea that students would skip school was practically inconceivable.
      But for many, priorities have shifted this summer, and many say schoolwork now feels trivial when the city's future is at stake.
      "(Over) the past few months, so many things happened that society has become unstable, and we're all uncertain about what's going to happen in the very near future," said Joey Siu, a student union executive member at the City University of Hong Kong.
      Now, she said, "we don't mind sacrificing our school life to spend time on protecting our homeland."
      Meanwhile, high school students like Fan and 17-year-old Charlotte Chan have to sit the Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE) exam this year, which is used for college admissions. They're worried about the rigorous exam, and say they'll study for it -- but they aren't willing to let go of the protests.
      "This is our future -- if we just focus on our academic results and neglect our society, I think I will regret it when I'm older," said Chan.
      Students are boycotting classes across the city, starting from September 2, the first day of school.
      Even for those who aren't boycotting, things feel and look different.
      There are empty classroom seats and political conversations in hallways. Nearly every campus has a so-called Lennon Wall, a mosaic of Post-it Notes bearing protest messages, as well as posters of protest art.
      At City University, a replica statue of the Goddess of Democracy, which was originally created for the Tiananmen Square protests, is covered in cracks. It was vandalized during the height of the Hong Kong protests, allegedly by a mainland Chinese student, and has been painstakingly glued back together.
      It's a fitting image -- students on the front lines have had their sense of normality shattered and lives forever changed.