Life in Beijing During the 2020 COVID-19 Pandemic: Return Part 2

118 Days and Counting

On Campus Finally

Beijing schools began reopening and our return date was May 10. Staff came in the prior week on May 6 for meetings and preparations. I asked and received permission to prepare from home and only return once students were actually on campus. Now, we’ve had classes for two weeks with a portion of our students. This post is on the measures and activity that have been done so far and is a followup to my prior post about preparing for our return to campus.

I ended up being the only foreigner teacher in my department to come back, most were stuck outside the country with the travel bans. In other departments maybe half or less of the foreign staff were able to return.

Welcoming back the graduating students to campus

Only year 12 and year 9 students allowed back, so I was only given a handful of classes to cover. So far I’ve just been there to monitor them while they’re doing online work with their actual instructors, both of whom are outside of China. As their final senior project gets going I’ll be there as a proxy for the online teacher and resource when needed. Of course, I’m continuing the online year 10 and 11 classes as normal. We’ve recently had word that those students will be returning at the start of June.

Notable Changes and Procedures

Arriving at the school gate for the first time there was a ‘red carpet’ nice facade setup to welcome back the returning students. They had that Sunday to get settled in and with classes starting the next morning. Other than that day the decorations and stuff aren’t crowding that area by the gate.

Things were still being set up when I arrived early.

It should be noted this is mostly a boarding school with dormitories housing the students during the school week. This practice is quite common in most Chinese schools. During normal times almost everybody goes home for the weekends, except for the handful who come from distant areas. During the school week there are some students from places nearby in Beijing who commute from home, but that’s only a fraction. Now though, students who live outside of Beijing itself cannot leave at all until the term is over in mid-July. Students who live in Beijing are allowed to return home and do so mostly on the weekends.

That’s mostly enabled by the Health Kit app tracking mentioned last article that confirms those in Beijing who have no abnormal conditions or contact. When I first arrived at the gate this was the first step to do. I showed the guards my app status, they noted it on their lists, and asked for signatures (I presume to personally confirm the info is correct?).

The gatehouse is equipped with metal detectors and airport style bag scanning machines all the time, but they’re not really ever used. Maybe they use them at times when parents or the public come on campus for a special event.

However, now a temperature scanner is attached to the top of a metal detector and the rest are cordoned off so everyone must pass through that one.

The temperature reading is instant and as you pass through a monitor displays the image and readout from the check. I’ve seen similar devices installed in public areas with high volume, such as metro stations, and so the flow is barely interrupted by slow manual temp checks.

As expected, the NPI/PPE aspects are present and so far practiced and enforced consistently. I worry with keeping that consistency going though, as sometimes behavior gets more lax over time.

Hallways in the buildings have clear notices, ‘tips’ and distancing demarcations. These are everywhere. I can’t say it’s really ‘enforced’, but are recommended guidelines. A lot of arrows trying to remind how traffic flow should go in order to keep distance.

A poster is found in just about every hallway and throughout the campus showing the basic guidelines. While in the buildings everybody is wearing masks, mostly just the regular surgical masks, some have the better KN95s. Within my office itself among the other teachers we are more lax and tend not to wear masks while sitting alone in our cubicle. However, if coming by to talk closer then we will put it on. It helps knowing that we all had testing to confirm we weren’t positive and none have left Beijing or hopefully not been in contact with a positive case according to the health kit app.

In case you need a reminder, the point of masks is not necessarily self-protection. It’s to limit the outward spread from the wearer. With the asymptomatic spread of this virus nobody knows if they’re a carrier. The simplest masks are effective enough at containing that spread to the wearer’s personal space. It certainly helps to catch the larger droplets and liquid spatter from coughs and sneezes. That’s why those types of masks are worn by surgeons. It’s not to protect the surgeon, but rather to limit the spread of germs to the vulnerable patient. More than a hundred days since this asymptomatic spread was reasonably known, I still see misconceptions about mask-wearing on ignorant social media posts and comments. Talk about a slow poke.

Within the classroom mask usage has to be 100% by everybody. There are tape marks on the floor to show were the desks should be. We already usually have their desks spaced that way during normal times, so this is just to reinforce that and remind students not to drift over to sit right next to their friends. Also, spray bottles with disinfectant and hand sanitizer were added to each classroom. The ‘form’ teachers (support staff who organize and mediate between teachers/students) spray the surfaces periodically. They also try to have classes exit their rooms at staggered intervals so the hallway is never too crowded with people. I’ll note also that numerous hand sanitizer stations have also popped up around the campus.

In our restrooms they closed off every other stall/urinal in order to keep distance. I’d be all for that in normal times anyhow. I noticed how wearing a mask while in the restroom with everybody’s stink is…much more preferable compared to normal times. Maybe a good hygiene choice regardless of the virus.

In the canteen they separated all the tables so that people would have to eat separately and distanced. This canteen and time slot is only for teachers. They staggered the lunchtime schedule for different groups. There’s a larger canteen elsewhere that I haven’t checked out, but I assume it’s similar distancing. Personally, I’ve just been bringing my own meal and eating at my desk instead of trusting the free lunch made by the school food staff. I’m sure they were tested like we were, but anything to reduce unnecessary risk is preferable to me.

I’m told by students that these same kinds of measures are going on in their dormitories as well. In their own rooms and with their roommates though nothing is changed, it would be difficult to enforce anyhow. But stepping outside their door into the hallways it’s back to the precautions.

Conclusion

The attitudes and demeanor of staff and students is generally calm and collected about all of this. We’re all glad to be back and given our shared experience with the pandemic we’re all basically on the same page. Since our department focuses on placing students at universities in the US, there is a large amount of doubt over when/if our seniors will be able to make their transition. Nevertheless, they’re all working on the final steps to be ready when the time comes.

I’ll note that the grass is pristine and thick especially so this year. Ground crew apparently been keeping at it while we were away. Not to mention nobody was around to trample on it.

As of the writing of this post many places are making efforts to reopen, prematurely in my view and lacking the readiness and mentality to effectively continue to combat the virus. I certainly don’t consider what’s around me almost 120 days into this pandemic to be a return to ‘normal’. It’s a cautious functionality and incremental creep. I guarantee that if clusters of the virus began popping up again in Beijing they would shut this all down again without hesitation. This has been the case in some cities on the border with Russia, who is experiencing a large spike in cases. As long as they continue to clamp down on outside cases entering and keeping a cautious guarded attitude domestically, there’s reason to be confident the worst is long past us.

I mean, I’m not not going to share a snapshot of my epic DuckTales coffee mug I scavenged from an obscure nook in a classroom…

3 thoughts on “Life in Beijing During the 2020 COVID-19 Pandemic: Return Part 2”

  1. Hi Thomas –

    You’ve published an excellent contextual accounting of the protocols, environment, procedures and requirements of returning to your workplace setting. You are correct, there would be a shrill shriek if Americans were subject to that sort of tracking, but we’re slowly headed that way nonetheless. I wanted to point out two places that you may want to check your text, 1) below the red carpet photograph, you have written, “It should noted that…” and I am wondering if you wanted to say, “It should BE noted…” and 2) below the photograph of the staircase, you have said that, “A poster is found in just every hallway…” and I’m wondering if you mean, “A poster is found in just ABOUT every hallway…” I’m learning a great deal about the cultural atmosphere in China from you, and it is intriguing to get an inside view of how things are unfolding. Thank you for providing such insightful coverage. I’ll share more with you by separate email.

    Tim
    Springfield

    May 23, 2020
    8:39 a.m.

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