Temperature checks and no touching: The rules of going back to school in China

Brace yourself – starting uni again isn’t going to be easy


At the beginning of May Shanghai started to reopen its doors again to college and university students. That’s millions of e-learning-exhausted 16-25-year olds going back to classrooms and lecture theatres. As you can imagine, China is very keen on upholding its image with a long, long list of rules and regulations for doing so. My name is Constance, I’m a British-Venezuelan student at an international school in China and I’ve lived five of the 17 years of my life in Shanghai. And honestly – going back to school under the new social distancing rules has been tiring.

While Cambridge Uni has announced it’s going entirely online next year, and others are doing so for term one, the situation in China may give some hope to students who are desperately praying for a return to campus this year. But even if unis do reopen, it’s not going to be anything like the real university experience. Here are some of the changes – speaking from experience – that you may have to prepare for:

We had to fill out a lot of paperwork before we went back

They are BIG on paperwork here, and the city government insists that every morning at 8 am we fill out a questionnaire promising we haven’t been anywhere near Wuhan, had the sniffles or, you know, have any symptoms defining us as a contagious threat to the school. On top of that, we have to take our temperature before school and notify them what it reads, right up to the decimal place.

Just one example of what we had to fill out before we went back

From the beginning to the end of the day you are monitored – starting with your temperature

From Monday to Friday every day at 8 am, students bring their forms to the entrance and pass through a ‘Temperate Check Point” where a thermal camera clocks their body temperature. The information is then linked to your medical student ID – a QR code which was mailed to us prior to the reopening of campus. As your ID is scanned you are asked to wait a moment and keep your feet on the allocated footprints on the floor, as must the person behind you, and the person behind them. If your temperature is even a fraction over 37.3°C, you are not allowed onto campus. The process could be something straight out of a George Orwell novel, to say the least. It’s daunting, but luckily, pretty hard to mess up.

Our daily temperature checkpoint at the entrance of the school

We are made to eat lunch at sad lonely desks with plastic dividers

Abiding by the expectations of the Government of Education in Shanghai, students are obligated to spend their lunchtimes much like paper does in dividers. Opaque divisors make even seeing your friends impossible – plus it’s a technology-free zone. All you can do is aimlessly stare at cloudy plastic and munch on either a mediocre salad or a plate of Kung Pao Chicken. It really is totalitarianism to the max.

Every day is a sad desk lunch

Lessons are shorter to allow for more cleaning

The day feels lengthened, although most classes have been knocked down by 5-10 minutes to make time for the cleaning periods. There are four, one before and after school and two during our break times, where cleaners go through the limited classrooms in use, disinfect doors handles, desks and tables. During these periods, we are sent outside to courtyards or the library. Our options are limited.

There are more temperature checks

One extra semi-break is also permitted, where the teacher is obligated to take a “thermometer gun” and record our temperatures. Although a fever is technically a temperature above 38°C, with caution in mind, any temperature above 37.3°C is considered dangerous. You are given three strikes, and if the thermometer reads higher than this each time, you are taken off-campus to an observation room, and your peers are “evacuated” too. If you indeed have Corona, it is likely school will be suspended for everyone for a while.

If you’re feeling warmer and scared of falsely triggering Corona alarms, chug a bottle of cold water. It works, trust.

Signs all over the school tell us how to behave

We are made to wear masks everywhere we go – including all day at school

You haven’t seen your friends in months, right? The reunion just HAS to be something straight out of a movie and the first thing you’re going to want to do is give them a hug. But that’s exactly what you’re not allowed to do. Awkward shoulder pat? Nope. Sturdy handshake? Definitely not. Your best bet is to wait for that one professor who doesn’t really care to be on duty to catch up with your friends.

The pressure to social distance and follow rules is always there. It is not uncommon to be approached by a stranger in public and told to put your mask on. At school, it is even stricter – masks are to be worn all day. The Ministry of Education looms above us with threats of supposed spontaneous checks-ins. If students aren’t following rules, it could mean a potential closure… and after 3+ months of learning through a computer, that’s the last thing we want.

Teachers, invigilators, staff and even strangers on the street are constantly on your back about distancing

You might not see your foreign lecturers for while which means more online learning

Some teachers and staff members could be stuck in their home country due to travel bans or health complications. Almost half of my teachers and those of my friends are stuck in other countries like the US, Turkey, Australia and Colombia – the list goes on. Amidst travel bans and intense quarantine rules, it is impossible to get back and thus the dreaded virtual learning persists – except now the online learning is AT school. It’s also become the norm that some students simply refuse to come to school. The logic is that for as long as Corona prevails, going to public places like a school is out of the question.

Class sizes are limited and the campus is half the size it used to be

To ease the burden of cleaning and to isolate everyone more, the vast majority of the campus is off-limits. Each classroom can strictly contain no more than 25 people at a time, and you are enforced to sit on separate desks if possible. Red signs and blue signs indicate where you can and cannot sit.

We have to sit metres apart in classrooms and science labs

No fun is allowed in between classes and you have to keep to your ‘bubble’

Free time here is about as free as the media. The gym is closed and so team sports are off the table. We have to go outside to allow for cleaning of rooms, and the occasional “deep” cleaning (as it’s named).

Strictly no fun allowed

Even in your breaks, you are expected to maintain your bubble; stay around the same people and social distance. Sit on the grass, run a lap – they don’t care. As long as you’re aware of yourself and those around you (and you’re not over 37.3°C).

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