Provided by Tom Ulmet on March 26, 2020.

China Closes Borders to Foreigners

You may by now have heard China’s recent message that it is closing its borders to foreigners, effective Friday, March 27 at midnight. As was consistent with previous viruses in China, foreigners are not affected as much as the local population because of locals’ close living conditions, clusters and places of exposure. Even in the past, foreigners returning to China from abroad were largely unaffected, but this time the conditions have changed with many countries affected and out of control. Now, many foreigners could be asymptomatic and not know they are carriers. Today’s news validates that foreigners are a small part of the overall problem. “Foreigners, however, account for a small minority of Covid-19 cases among incoming passengers, according to a report by Chinese state broadcaster CCTV. Among infected passengers entering China, 90 per cent were Chinese nationals, CCTV said. Of that group, 40 per cent were students studying overseas.”

Everything changed when universities in various countries shut down and Chinese students decided to return 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. 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 5000 people had to be screened, logged, monitored and some treated in just one night. The same scenario played out in Shanghai. Last week Shanghai was to become the only port of reentry, but it was quickly determined that the facilities and staff could not handle such large numbers and arriving passengers were in waiting lines of up to eight hours to be tested, registered and sent to places of legal residence or quarantine hotels. These hotels rapidly filled. The following day, the government spread the load of arriving flights to other cities, but the number of people arriving from countries on the China check list again exceeded capacity. This is why there is a temporary ban on incoming flights with foreigners. Anticipating the arrival within weeks of over 400,000 people, today, they determined that the influx is simply too great to cope with while quarantines are in effect (as they should be) and it is best to stop all but essential personnel from returning. 

So who are these foreigners? Certainly they are not tourists. They are thousands of families, including our teachers, who left China just before the outbreak when they had left for Chinese New Year and many others who decided to leave after the outbreak or were evacuated. This new travel ban could last two weeks or a month, at which point it makes little sense for them to return. After testing, they would then serve their self-quarantine in their place of legal residence, monitored by the residential quarantine teams. Those without legal residence would serve the quarantine in a designated quarantine hotel in the arrival city. If staff cannot re-enter now, those schools that have not recalled teachers by now, may have a problem depending on how many students will actually attend school once a campus reopens. In addition, the reporting required for tracking everyone who returns in a school will be a gigantic paperwork headache.

Just In: Important News About Returning Staff
The central government has just confirmed that they stand by their original definition of who is affected by the entry ban on Friday night which stated, “China has decided to temporarily suspend entry of foreigners with currently valid visas and residence permits in China.” This 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 not be allowed to reenter until the ban is lifted. If you are 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.

Looking ahead, we see some immediate needs evolving quickly, so here is a Head’s Up, so to speak. 

  • 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

Due to rapidly changing conditions, I have re-written this message three times in the past 36 hours. It is quite challenging to provide information that has validity over time so I want you to know that I confer directly with various agencies, government and private to provide as reliable information about our region as possible.  Early on, we decided from past experience not to dwell on numbers, but to focus on trends. Now the cumulative numbers are truly depressing and will get worse before they get better which justifies our position. In some countries the virus has been out of control and it is too late for containment as any actions taken or to be take are too little too late.

Unfortunately, the rest of the world is ill-prepared for such an easily transmitted new virus and we are hearing or experiencing desperate cries for assistance which some governments are unable to provide, or they have ignored the warning signs making containment impossible with severe consequences for a national economy and health care services which then affects the world economy and health care services. 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.  The major challenges ahead 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 tedious daily government reporting requirements that will surely follow

As we edge ever closer to campuses reopening, you will all be quite busy ensuring the campus is safe for all school constituents. Next week we will share a set of Priority Cleaning and Sanitation Guidelines for conditions such as these. 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.  Recall the social media and government response to the expired food date on a catsup packet some months back. The reputation of your school will depend on strict hygiene measures. 

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. In my next message, we will review the latest on the impact of weather in the hope of slowing the spread around the world. 

Even though we are not flying anywhere, fasten your seat belts for the next part of this turbulent time. Be brave, do your survey homework, take a deep breath, be strong!

Most of all be safe!