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To stay or not to stay

<p>A hall at Duke Kunshan University.</p>

A hall at Duke Kunshan University.

Undergraduate students at Duke Kunshan University (DKU) in China will be contributing written and multimedia content to The Chronicle to be published every other Friday. Today's Kunshan Report was meant for Friday, Feb. 21.

In recent days, the Duke Kunshan University campus has been unusually quiet. You still see the odd person walking about, but they tend to silently hide their face behind a school-distributed N-95 mask. The local pigeons have declared their position as the dominant living presence on campus—attested to by piles of white droppings punctuating the concrete walkways.  

One month ago, DKU students were still planning for the Spring Festival Holiday. On Jan. 23, Wuhan city was shut down. Students from Wuhan had to cancel their trips back home and many other students started to consider canceling as well—to avoid transportation. 

Two days later, an email arrived saying the holiday was extended from a week to 20 days. Many students who had canceled their trips immediately decided to book the earliest flight back home—the holiday had become so long that staying at school seemed boring. 

However, 63 undergraduate and graduate students remained on campus. They have been divided into five groups and every group has a student leader assigned to help check students’ body temperatures and mental conditions daily. 

Some faculty members are also on campus, including Chancellor Youmei Feng and Vice-Chancellor Scott MacEachern. A few faculty members are currently elsewhere in Kunshan but are not yet allowed to enter the campus—they are still under a two-week quarantine.

While the majority of students have left, those who chose to stay had their reasons—often due to the deteriorating outbreak situation across the country and in their respective hometowns. Yangrong Bai and Yihang Yang, undergraduates from Hunan province, said their parents were worried that they would get infected if they traveled back home. 

All packages are required to be picked up at least one day after the arrival—students have to wear surgical gloves and masks to get their packages. In isolated slots, only one student is allowed to enter the room at a time to rummage amongst the small hill of packages. 

While some on campus chose to stay, others didn’t have a choice. Six Wang, an undergraduate student from Wuhan, was one of them. On Jan. 23, the Chinese government declared that no one could enter or exit Wuhan, the city where cases of the coronavirus were first reported. Six canceled his trip upon hearing news of the closure. 

“Though I could not spend the New Year with my family, staying at school is better,” Six said. “If I were at home, I could only stay inside the house. Here I have the entire campus to walk around and play sports.” 

He looked up and fixed his eyes on the soccer field. Two students were playing soccer, both wearing N-95 masks—a cumbersome piece of equipment that makes breathing difficult. Minutes later, the two players freed themselves from the bothersome masks, discarding them onto the field.

Food delivery is prohibited, and only a limited amount of staff members are allowed to enter the campus. The shut-down campus has convinced many students to believe that it is safe enough to remove their masks. 

However, some students are still extremely careful about sanitary measures. 

Tom Zhang, from Beijing, insists on wearing a mask all the time. He stays in his room most of the time and eats at a single table at the dining hall. “I decided not to return home on the 17th. I paid attention to the reports that confirmed that the outbreak was serious,” he said with a frown. “During the outbreak of SARS, university campuses in Beijing were quarantined for six months. No student got infected at those schools—it’s relatively safe here.” 

Still, he is worried about the reliability of using body temperature to judge whether a staff member is safe to enter the campus, or a student on campus is healthy. 

“The school isn’t to blame, but the authorities haven’t provided other methods of testing that could be applied to non-medical institutions,” he said.

Nearly a month has passed. DKU has decided to resume courses online starting Feb. 24. The general mood on campus has turned from one of panic to peace, and most students are satisfied with their decision to stay.

Joy Xiao, from Shandong, admitted that staying at school is much more fun than being at home. 

“The VPN here is good. We have free access to all kinds of entertainment!” she said excitedly, “We have the gym, library, and game rooms—think about the living conditions of our friends back home!”

Having plenty of time to spend on themselves, many students have begun working on projects geared towards the recovery effort. Ketheya Huang, a prospective Media and Arts major, has been editing a music video about coronavirus. In the story, a girl infected by the virus is encouraged to persist by an anonymous friend online and eventually recovers.

“We are separated by the virus, but we are united by love—I’m glad that I chose to stay,” she said with a smile. “We’re gonna make it.”

Leiyuan Tian is a first-year in the second ever graduating class of the Duke Kunshan campus’s undergraduate program, located outside Shanghai, China.

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