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China closes its borders again to foreigners

Tom Ulmet, Executive Director of ACAMIS (The Association of China and Mongolia International Schools) informed all of the association member schools that China will close its borders to foreigners from midnight on March 27th

Conditions change so rapidly that it is necessary to confer directly with various government and private agencies to provide as reliable information about the China situation as possible for ACAMIS members. He highlighted that circumstances have changed since universities in many countries have shut down resulting in Chinese students returning home. “On 20 flights landing in Hong Kong on one night last weekend, mostly filled with returning students, everyone on board was tested and 9 students and one other passenger tested positive for COVID-19,” he said. “Without screening, this seed number would grow exponentially within days to an outbreak. Take, for example, the follow-up measures needed for those flights with an average of 250 passengers and crew. This meant that 5,000 people had to be screened, logged, monitored and some treated in just one night. This type of screening and monitoring is why China has been successful containing the virus which is not the case in most other countries. The same scenario played out in major ports of entry last week when it was quickly determined that the facilities and staff could not handle such large numbers of returning people. Anticipating the arrival within weeks of over 400,000 people, the influx that contains even a small percentage of asymptomatic or infected passengers is a great risk considering the rapid spread into social clusters.  In addition, the number of Chinese citizens returning from abroad is simply too great to cope with while quarantines are in effect (as they should be). It was determined it is best to stop all but essential foreign personnel from returning,” he explained. In addition as of March 28, foreigners with valid residence permits will no longer be able to return to their residence to be quarantined but will be required to quarantine in designated hotels where the entire hotel is sanitised and those quarantined have health checks several times daily.

The foreigners are the thousands of families, including expatriate teachers, who left China for the Chinese New Year holiday or decided to depart after the outbreak. This ban includes every category of worker, with exceptions only for people approved in advance such as diplomatic and medical experts. “This implies that no foreign teachers with valid work and residence permits will be allowed to reenter until the ban is lifted,” said Tom. “If your school is in the situation where you have recalled your foreign teachers, but they have not yet arrived, count them out. You may wish to double check this through your local education bureau, but the central government is not likely to change this as it would open too many exceptions, defeating the purpose,” he advised.

Tom’s advice to international school leaders is:

  • Determine how many staff are still abroad
  • Do an enrolment assessment taking into account the number of families that have not yet returned
  • Imagine a possible 15% student decrease immediately
  • Reassess current staffing needs based on returnees when campuses reopen
  • Imagine a possible student shortfall of that same percentage into the next school year, but conduct surveys for better prediction
  • Confer with new teacher hires for next year to determine how many remain committed and how many may now not want to leave home
  • Try to make the difficult prediction of how many staff will be needed for next year and try to find the balance of staff needed in relation to enrolment
  • Consider staff increases or reductions as needed

“Unfortunately, the rest of the world is ill-prepared for such an easily transmitted new virus. We are hearing or experiencing desperate cries for assistance, which some governments are unable to provide or they have ignored the warnings making containment impossible with severe consequences for a national economy and health care services which then affects the world economy,” said Tom. “Many countries do not have the resources to contain, prevent or treat the virus. The good news is that China’s massive containment efforts worked.  The challenge for China in the months ahead, now that lockdown has worked, is to ensure that lockout also works when thousands of returning students and international residents begin their return to China from infected locations around the world. The lockout should be good news for international schools as we strive to prevent an asymptomatic person from entering the school.” Other countries that are in the beginning stages of the spread need to prepare for school closings and minimally, self-quarantines.

Tom said that the major challenges ahead for schools in China are:

  • Ongoing containment within China
  • Prevention of the virus from reentering China
  • Prevention of the virus from entering the school cluster
  • Emergency level cleaning and hygiene procedures within our schools
  • Temperature checks of everyone entering the premises
  • Restrict those entering the premises to only students and staff
  • Account daily for all those who indicated they will return to school
  • Complete the daily government reporting requirements that will surely follow

ACAMIS will be sharing a set of Priority Cleaning and Sanitation Guidelines to members to ensure their schools are safe for all. “We must have the cleanest, most hygienic environments possible to try to prevent even one case from entering the school cluster. With the great eradication efforts of the host country, it would be easy to overlook this need, but the danger now comes from returning foreigners reintroducing the virus which could be recycled around the world from north to south in addition to east to west during the next two years.  The reputation of your school will depend on strict hygiene measures,” he said. “We are fortunate to be in a region that took such stringent containment measures with such tremendous success in such a short time. Now we must assist by being as vigilant as possible to avoid a relapse in the coming months.”

Tom Ulmet concluded with support and strength for ACAMIS schools: “Even though we are not flying anywhere, fasten your seat belts for the next part of this turbulent time as we enter Springtime and again in the Autumn. Be brave, do your survey homework, take a deep breath, be strong and keep your constituents informed. The worst part of containment in China has passed, now we must engage actively in prevention. This has been a model for the world and China was well prepared.  Schools in other parts of the world can use this experience to predict what might be coming their way.  Most of all, do not take chances and be safe !”