How pandemic-shuttered campuses can reopen

Jennifer Pak May 27, 2020
Heard on: Marketplace
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A student at NYU's Shanghai campus sits alone in the library. Fewer seats are available, reflecting the school's effort to maintain social distancing. Jennifer Pak/Marketplace

How pandemic-shuttered campuses can reopen

Jennifer Pak May 27, 2020
A student at NYU's Shanghai campus sits alone in the library. Fewer seats are available, reflecting the school's effort to maintain social distancing. Jennifer Pak/Marketplace
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Some U.S. colleges are looking at how to resume classes on campuses safely. Many closed down for more than two months to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

One place they might seek inspiration from is China. Over there, some students at some institutions, including New York University’s campus in Shanghai, are now attending classes in person after three months. NYU Shanghai’s summer session started this week.

Here are some of the virus prevention measures NYU Shanghai is taking:

1.    Screen for potential coronavirus carriers

Green “healthy” QR codes

In the absence of widespread coronavirus testing, NYU Shanghai, like many businesses and organizations throughout China, will only allow people with a green health QR code to enter.

  • Tables at the NYU Shanghai cafe usually have one chair to encourage social distancing. (Jennifer Pak/Marketplace)
  • All the chairs face the same direction in NYU Shanghai's cafeteria. (Courtesy of NYU Shanghai)

This QR code uses various information, though it is unclear which data is used, to assign each resident a color: red means a suspected or confirmed coronavirus carrier; yellow indicates a person might need to be quarantined; green means low-risk, and the person can move about freely.

Fever checks

Anyone with a temperature higher than 37.3 C (99.1 F) is supposed to be sent to the fever clinic.

Entering NYU Shanghai requires a green health QR code and fever checks. (Courtesy of NYU Shanghai)
Entering NYU Shanghai requires a green health QR code and fever checks. (Photo courtesy NYU Shanghai)

Track and trace

Students usually scan a QR code to reserve a desk at the library, but now this function will also make it easier to track and trace students should someone later be infected with the coronavirus.

2. Keep the coronavirus at bay

  • Disinfectant mats at the entrance aims to remove germs from shoes
  • Academic building is regularly disinfected
  • Face masks are required on campus
  • Security guard and café staff wear face masks and face shields 
  • Hand sanitizers are placed across campus, including at the café, study lounge, elevators and food court
  • Posters across campus remind students to wear face masks, wash their hands and keep a safe distance apart

3. Social distancing

  • Only one set of doors to enter and another to exit the campus building to prevent people from bumping into each other
  • Stickers marking every 1 meter (3 feet) in areas where people might line up, such as the campus entrance, café ordering area and cafeteria
  • Chairs have been removed across campus, usually leaving just one chair per table. All chairs face the same direction
  • Elevators have marked grid lines so that no more than five people should be inside at a time
Students can only sit in every other seat (Courtesy of NYU Shanghai)
In class, students can only sit in every other seat. (Photo courtesy NYU Shanghai)

4. Mixed-mode learning

Another way to maintain social distancing is to limit class sizes.

“A class that might ordinarily be seating 60 students now [will seat] more like 25 or 30 students,” NYU Vice Chancellor Jeff Lehman said.

Other students will have to use videoconferencing software Zoom to attend classes. NYU refers to this type of learning as “mixed mode.”

NYU Shanghai is currently testing this learning format since two-thirds of its faculty and some international students are still stuck overseas. China has shut its borders to outsiders because of the pandemic.

Professor Tao Siye teaching a dance class where half of her students are not physically in the classroom (Jennifer Pak/Marketplace)
Tao Siye teaches a dance class in which half the students are not physically present in the classroom. (Jennifer Pak/Marketplace)

Only professors who are in Shanghai can hold mixed-mode classes. This approach to learning comes with many technical challenges, including where to place the microphone.

“If you have two mics, they interfere with each other. So how do you use the one microphone to capture both faculty and the students in the classroom?” library director Zu Xiaojing asked. “The students tend to talk softly or their voices are relatively high, so just a lot of tweaking.”

Two cameras are set up in larger classrooms — one trained on the professor, the other on students in the room.

The goal is to make the course just as lively for students at home as it is for those sitting in class.

“Showing the two-camera view is important to create that full classroom experience,” Zu said.

NYU senior Amy DeCillis in what is usually a favorite hangout for students. Many of DeCillis' friends are stuck overseas because of the pandemic (Jennifer Pak/Marketplace)
NYU senior Amy DeCillis in what is usually a favorite student hangout. Many of DeCillis’ friends remain overseas because of the pandemic. (Jennifer Pak/Marketplace)

There are limits to technology. During a routine in assistant professor Tao Siye’s minority and folk dance class, some at-home students are out of step with those in the classroom.

“The internet [connection] is a bit delayed,” Tao said.

Even if the technology works seamlessly, there are still barriers.

Assistant professor Chen Guodong’s corporate-finance class includes some students who are still in the United States.

At times, the course takes place when it is late at night in America, which Chen said makes it challenging to have an engaging discussion. Sometimes he calls on students joining from their homes to ensure they stay awake.

“This is different from the general teaching,” Chen said.

Jeff Lehman of NYU Shanghai said social distancing requirements would mean a mix of students attending the course in class, while others join online (Jennifer Pak/Marketplace)
Jeff Lehman of NYU Shanghai said social distancing requirements mix students attending in class with those participating online. (Jennifer Pak/Marketplace)

Since cameras are fixed in the classrooms during mixed-mode teaching, NYU Shanghai Vice Chancellor Lehman said his movements are restricted when he gives lectures.

“It’s less fun,” Lehman said.

However, until a vaccine is available, mixed-mode learning may well be the new normal.

For now, Lehman said the fall semester is oversubscribed for both Chinese and international students.

5. Let students return in phases

Shanghai’s education board allowed seniors back on college campuses first, in late April, followed by underclassmen a week later. NYU also made return to the Shanghai campus optional.

Amy DeCillis of North Carolina, who was in Shanghai from the start of the pandemic, was thrilled to be on campus again. “I’m very happy to be back at school,” said DeCillis, a senior majoring in global China studies.

Since many of her classmates were not in Shanghai, though, she had to make new friends in the final stretch of her studies.

DeCillis recalled her excitement when she saw one of her classmates walking down the hall. “I’m like, ‘Oh my God, hi! It’s so good to see you! You were not someone on my radar before, but now you’re going to be my best friend because we’re just here together and seniors.’ So, it’s really funny.”

NYU sophomore Maggie Liang is relieved to be allowed back on campus after three months of closure. (Jennifer Pak/Marketplace)
NYU sophomore Maggie Liang is relieved to be allowed back on campus after three months of closure. (Jennifer Pak/Marketplace)

Even though DeCillis’ courses were taught online, she preferred to attend them while on campus because, she said, she was easily distracted at home.

Same with philosophy major Maggie Liang, a sophomore.

“Having this physical environment and having facilities [is what] I miss the most,” Liang said. “[Whereas] back at home, I can take classes on my bed.”

Neither of them is particularly worried about their health now that they are back on campus. That’s in part because, they said, the number of coronavirus infections in Shanghai is relatively low.

“Even at its peak, the cases were just a few hundred, and Shanghai is a city of 24 million,” DeCillis said. “So I always felt very safe.”

NYU Shanghai says it has invested more than $200,000 on extra bandwidth, tech accessories, software, licenses and health and safety equipment such as temperature detection devices, hand sanitizer, face masks and other protective items. 

Additional research by Charles Zhang.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

Will the federal government extend the extra COVID-19 unemployment benefits?

It’s still unclear. Congress and President Donald Trump are deciding whether to extend the extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits workers are getting because of the pandemic. Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia believes the program should not be extended, and White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said the additional money is disincentivizing some workers from returning to their jobs. Democrats want to keep providing the money until January.

As states lift restrictions, are people going back to stores and restaurants?

States have relaxed their restrictions, and many of us have relaxed, too. Some people have started to make exceptions for visiting restaurants, if only for outdoor dining. Some are only going to places they trust are being extra cautious. But no one we’ve talked to has really gone back to normal. People just aren’t quite there yet.

Will surges in COVID-19 cases mean a return to lockdowns?

In many areas where businesses are reopening, cases of COVID-19 are trending upwards, causing some to ask if the lockdowns were lifted too soon, and if residents and businesses might have to go through it all again. So, how likely is another lockdown, of some sort? The answer depends on who you ask. Many local officials are now bullish about keeping businesses open to salvage their economies. Health experts, though, are concerned.

You can find answers to more questions here.

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