Provided by Kevin Baker, Head of AISG on August 16, 2020.
I was sitting in my quarantine hotel room responding to email and wondering how I would spend the hours thereafter when one of the messages was a welcome from The Executive Director of the Association of China and Mongolia International Schools (ACAMIS), our professional membership organization, www.acamis.org. He then suggested I record my experiences in quarantine and share them with others so they know what to expect. What a great idea! So here goes.
199 days. That is how long it took me to be able to return to Guangzhou when I departed China prior to Chinese New Year for teacher recruiting. Little did I realize that I would be displaced outside of our new home in China for so long. Welcome to the COVID-19 pandemic era, our next normal.
What follows is my personal account of returning to Guangzhou, China to be able to lead the American International School of Guangzhou from ground zero. A few kudos and one caveat are in order before I begin. First, I would like to thank all of the amazing staff at AISG that worked tirelessly to advocate and toil for not only my return but the return of all of our displaced leadership and faculty. Additionally, I would like to thank Ms. Zoe Timms, former Director of Advancement and Communications at AISG, for sharing her and her partner’s return experiences from last spring. My humble efforts are built upon her insightful and authentic description of their experience. An important caveat: first, this is only one person’s experience of returning to China, specifically Guangzhou and the quarantine experience in the government hotel I was assigned to. Your experiences may be different. Please look at this account just as another data point and not the only potential experience you might have. I hope you will find my sharing a meaningful learning opportunity for those yet to make the journey.
Preparations for your return
First and foremost, the most important items you can pack for your return is a positive attitude and a warehouse of patience. The special visa and flight arrangement process takes an enormous amount of time and will have many unanticipated and potentially frustrating delays. I encourage everyone to keep their eyes on the ultimate prize – getting back to China and your school. If you keep a long-term vision in mind, along with positive self-talk, I believe it will be helpful to you, your loved ones, your school and your emotional health in the long run.
You will likely be required to produce a negative COVID test result 72 hours prior to departure. I would encourage you to identify several potential places where you might get your test or tests completed in time. As I was coming from the United States and I was uncertain if the test results would be completed in time, I underwent separate tests at two different testing clinics to increase my chances of getting the required results in time.
You will need to set up your WeChat for arrival in China. This is a foundational aspect of the virus reporting and tracking system in China. Specifically, you will need to download and set up the Sui Kang mini program as well as the China Customs Pocket Declaration mini program which will require you to complete the Health Declaration ID form prior to departure and then upon arrival. I strongly suggest you take a picture of the entry QR code once you have completed both mini program processes.
As you will most likely be heading straight to your government quarantine hotel directly after landing and completing the various COVID-19 virus prevention testing protocols, it is wise to consider what you might need to successfully complete a 14 day quarantine in a hotel room by yourself. While your personal needs and preferences will dictate what you will pack, here are some suggestions:
- Clothes (enough for 14 days as there is no laundry available)
- Large beach type towel (to use an a exercise or yoga mat in the room)
- Laptop, headphones, power converter and cord
- Small portable Bluetooth speaker (it really helps to play music in your room)
- HDMI cable (in case you can connect your laptop to the TV)
- Books and a notepad
- Podcasts and Videos (TV series... movies... exercise videos...download before you fly!)
- Prescriptions, Medication and Vitamins (ibuprofen, etc...)
- Non-perishable food items (crackers, jar of peanut butter, nuts, tea and coffee sachets, muesli bars, power bars, granola, instant oatmeal, ramen, soy sauce, salt and pepper, etc...)
- Treats (hard candy, gum, mints – something that will not melt)
- Reusable mug/cup
- Plastic container (it also doubled as a plate) and a plastic bowl for oatmeal and ramen
- Extra toilet paper (only if you have a special preference)
- Laundry, dish soap and a sponge (in case you want to hand wash clothes or your cutlery)
- Personal toiletries (enough for 14 days)
- Alcohol or special beverages (quarantine is a dry experience)
My flying experience, while feeling surreal, was fairly straight forward. Pack plenty of masks, hand sanitizer and cleaning wipes. Some food and basic drinks were provided on the flights. I would still encourage you to pack some snacks. Masks will have to be worn the entire flight (except when eating and drinking), so make sure your mask is comfortable to wear for the long journey.
Arrival in China
I landed at Baiyun International Airport in Guangzhou. About two hours before landing, the flight attendants took the temperatures of all passengers which was reported to the health team at the arriving airport before we landed.
Upon landing, our flight was directed to a restricted area of the tarmac, to a special gate, for us to disembark into their special quarantine and testing area inside the airport.
Everyone was instructed to stay seated until instructed to depart the airplane. We were dismissed by seat numbers. You will be greeting by medical professionals and airport employees all in hazmat suits. Do not be alarmed, they are just being careful. They will take your temperature as you come off the plane and direct you to a seating area in the terminal quarantine area. Again, I encourage people to be patient with the landing process as it takes at least several hours or more to complete. Have your passport and mobile phone handy with WeChat ready. I also strongly encourage you to ensure your phone battery is fully charged! As you disembark, a member of the medical team (in a hazmat suit) will place a red sticker on the back of your passport. The red sticker will have a number on it. This number will be the order in which you are processed.
The first stage in the landing process after all passengers disembarked into the special quarantine area in the terminal, was for the medical professionals to confirm that you have an active Sui Kang account and that you have completed a revised online Health Declaration ID form in WeChat. After this is completed you will be directed to an intake area where a medical worker (in a hazmat suit), will scan your QR code from the Health Declaration ID form and print a QR code that will be attached to the back of your passport. This will be used to log your process through all other stages of the arrival health screening process. You will also be asked to sign a number of forms including a “Notification for Centralized Quarantine and Medical Observation” form. Our AISG HR staff were on call to provide virtual translation support through this entire process as most of the workers spoke minimal English. One helpful strategy for communication through this process was the creation of a “Welcome Back to China” special WeChat channel by HR for those of us returning to use at any time.
After set up of health registration, you will be directed to the COVID testing room. You will be asked to take your passport with you for scanning (leave your carry on luggage outside the examination room). In the exam room, a medical professional will can your QR code, register your temperature again and then will efficiently administer two thorough nasal swabs, one for each nostril. You will then be dismissed to pick up your luggage and proceed to immigration.
Immigration was a very traditional process only with preventive health measures in place. After Immigration, you will proceed to the baggage claim area. At baggage claim, the airport staff (in hazmat suits) will remove all luggage from the carousel as a safety precaution. Once your baggage arrives, you can proceed individually through customs.
After customs you are directed to the quarantine bus loading area. It was very strange entering the airport after customs to see no one out in the receiving area. The entire area is closed off with boarding that displayed directional arrows to follow to go to the next station. When in doubt, follow the arrows.
Once you arrive to the bus loading area, you will be asked to provide your apartment address. The specific question I was asked was, “Where do you want to go after the quarantine hotel?”. It is helpful to have your apartment address printed out in Chinese (or a digital picture of the address) to show the medical team workers. If you have a doubt, we recommend for our staff to use our ErSha Campus school address. Based on your location in the city, you are assigned a number (I was assigned #1 and a huge number one sticker was put on my left shoulder). All of the same group was then directed to a bus which took us directly to our quarantine hotel. Although it was very comforting knowing that I had AISG HR staff on call to support at any time, at no point was there any opportunity for anyone outside of the quarantine area at the airport to meet me or to hand anything off to.
Once we arrived to our quarantine hotel (I am staying at the Vienna International Hotel in Guangzhou, a hotel I would rate as a Chinese three star hotel), our passports were collected from us by a medical staff member (so they could check us into the hotel) and we were instructed to wait on the bus . All of our luggage was removed from the bus, lined up outside of the hotel and sprayed with a disinfectant. We then disembarked the bus and met the medical team and checked into the hotel, all outside of the hotel building. After my temperature was checked again and I completed signed several more forms including a form to check on my psychological health, an insomnia assessment, an anxiety detection form, a QR code to contact counselors if needed, a centralized quarantine notice informing me of how long I would be in quarantine, reminders about when food would be delivered, whether I wanted two or three meals a day, what time outside deliveries could arrive at the hotel, the timing of the two additional COVID-19 tests at the hotel, what time garbage would be cleared each day from the front door of our room. After receiving my passport back and my hotel room card, and a welcome gift bag from the government (ramen and some cookies), a medical team member escorted me to my room and gave me his personal WeChat in case I had any further questions. The process from landing to getting into my quarantine hotel room took me less than five hours. Welcome to your new home for two weeks!
My hotel room is comfortable but not luxurious. I have some room pictures I can make available if you would like. The most important feature is that the Air Conditioning works and we are allowed to use it! It is not a big room (almost 30 feet long by almost 15 feet wide). The shower has hot water, the room comes with a water kettle (which is very important as I have used it a lot during my stay), the bed is serviceable, and there is a desk to work at. The room does not have a refrigerator. You can request fresh linens and towels during your stay but they will be delivered outside of your door and you will have to change them yourself. Just place the used linens outside your door to be picked up. The internet in the hotel is very weak. AISG anticipated this and had an immediate care package sent to my room within an hour of arrival that included additional drinking water, some snacks and treats and most importantly a MiFi router which enables me to set up my own wireless internet network in my hotel room. This has been a life saver. Highly recommended!
The daily routine in quarantine is very predictable. Food deliveries (Chinese box meals in delivery bags) occur around the same time each day: breakfast at 7:30am, lunch at 12 noon and dinner at 5:30. They are either hung on the doorknob of the room or set outside the door on the floor. I also have some pictures of the meals if you would like to see examples. Please communicate any special dietary needs you have upon arrival (ie: allergies vegetarian, etc.). The medical staff knock on my door twice each day, once at 11am and then at 4pm, to take my temperature. You are expected to wear a mask whenever you come to your door and open it. Otherwise, you can be mask free in your room. I am not allowed to step beyond the doorway of my room. Garbage is taken away at 8pm each evening after it is set outside the door. Over the night, a new trach bag is placed outside my door along with two small bottles of drinking water. If you order any items delivered to your room, they will be delivered around mealtimes only.
I have been told that I will have one more COVID-19 test the day before I am released from quarantine. When I am officially released, I will be expected to pay for the room and the meals before I depart. Credit cards are acceptable.
My understanding is that most quarantine hotels are one person to a room (maximum two people) unless you have children, in which case children can stay with one of the parents. I am traveling by myself at this time as dependents were not eligible for special visas when I came back.
Personal Daily Routines. I recommend each person develops their own special daily routines while in quarantine. Adding structure to your days really helps the time to go by. I have certain morning routines, meal routines, exercise and wellness routines as well as scheduling when my work time is and when is my down time. Be thinking before you come back to China, what you want to do with your time in quarantine and how you can make it a meaningful opportunity for yourself versus just a challenging inconvenience.
Stay in touch. Another strong recommendation is to make a plan for regular communication with friends, family, coworkers and your school throughout your quarantine time. I find I look forward to these calls the most each day! I also strongly encourage schools to systematically set up a support structure to assist returning people with managing their quarantine experience.
Care packages matter! I have been fortunate to receive several well-timed care packages and special meals from my staff, board, PTA and friends. Each one is a gift and a bright ray sunshine and joy in the quarantine experience!
While this experience is not ideal, I believe it is very manageable if people approach it with the right mindset, some preparation and having some support on the ground to assist you. You are likely to feel a whole range of emotions as you process everything through the arrival and quarantine experience. This is normal but is important to know, with confidence, that it is doable! You have a community to support you along the journey. It can be tough at times but stay positive and stay connected to your people! At the end of your stint, you’ll be back in your own bed in your home IN CHINA. After such a long time away, what can be better than that! Check out our website to see more about AISGZ. https://www.aisgz.org
Kevin Baker, Director
American International School in Guangzhou
China Quarantine Survivor