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Photo courtesy of NYU Shanghai

Covid-19 at NYU Shanghai: A Chronology

The first to close and the first to open, international students stranded outside the country and Chinese students opting for Go Local; a tough year for NYU Shanghai is attempting to return to normal.

Nov 21, 2020

Walking the streets of Shanghai today, it would be hard to imagine that just nine short months ago China was in the throes of a frightening battle against what was then just the Covid-19 epidemic. In early February, tens of millions of residents of Wuhan — the capital of China’s Hubei province — were forced into mandatory quarantine in an attempt to contain the virus, which at that point had already killed 636 people and infected roughly 32,000.
For NYU Shanghai this uncertain time also meant significant, and in some cases, life-altering changes for its students. As a result of frequently changing government regulations, the start of spring classes was first pushed back to Feb. 10 and then again to the end of February after finally canceling in-person instruction altogether on Jan. 31. With the Spring semester already in full swing at NYU New York and NYU Abu Dhabi, this left many NYUSH students with little time to arrange visas and housing at alternate global sites.
One such student was Gurkriti Singh, NYUSH Class of 2020. After traveling to India for a wedding in January, Singh found herself stuck with relatives for her final semester, unable to return to China even though she has lived with her family in Tianjin for over 21 years.
“It’s quite an experience to not be able to get back home when you haven’t lived in India for more than a year,” shared Singh. “[It’s] feeling like you’re in this weird status where you have an Indian passport but you’re not actually from here. So I had to deal with all of those things.”
Following several failed attempts to study away at NYUAD, Singh decided to take a leave of absence and remain in India, where she has been for the last ten months. For many Chinese nationals studying abroad, the process of returning to China following site closures across the global network was also extremely distressing. Vivi Zhu, NYUAD Class of 2022, was halfway through a dream semester in Cuba for NYU Tisch’s specialized documentary filmmaking program, when she was given two days to pack up her things and return to Shanghai in March.
By the beginning of summer, the virus was beginning to loosen its grip, and life across the nation was seeming to transition to normalcy. Bars, clubs and restaurants reopened to almost full capacity, mask-wearing mandates were loosened and in the city of Wuhan thousands gathered for a water filled music festival.
“When I came back to China everything was normal. I would go running and shop with my family,” said Zhu. “[The only difference was that] whenever you go into a mall or a train station, [staff] check your temperature … and when you go into any building you have to show your house code.” This house code is generated through the common Chinese app Alipay and grants you one of three colors depending on your travel history. Users with a green code are permitted to move freely, however anything else lands you nothing less than seven days in quarantine.
This semblance of normalcy has come at a price. Rigorous health restrictions and sustained travel bans have left NYUSH’s international student population — 214 in the the class of 2023 alone — barred from entering China since Mar. 28.
As NYUSH prepared to accommodate over 3000 Go Local students from NYUNY and NYUAD for the fall semester — with the university renting Go Local study spaces at two separate WeWork locations— international students were greeted with less optimism. In a letter to the student body on Aug. 15, university administrators detailed a three staged approach to bring all community members back on campus in groups. Priority would be given to groups 1A and 1B, faculty and first year students respectively, all of whom would still need to receive invitation letters from the government and cooperate with testing standards. Group two on the other hand, international upperclassmen, were told to wait until midterms to get a better picture. That is until Oct. 5, when prevailing freezes on student visa issuance were lifted, giving students the perfect window of opportunity. Rugby Scruggs, Class of 2022, took this opportunity.
Before Scruggs even considered embarking on his journey to Shanghai, him and his family had to complete a month's work of paperwork, even sending his passport to China to get his visa approved. Covid-19 testing was even more difficult, as all passengers currently traveling to China are required to get both a PRC and IgM antibody test certified by a Chinese embassy within 48 hours of their flight. Much like Zhu’s experience entering China in March, Scruggs was not allowed to disembark from his flight until his name was called, after which he was ushered to a mass Covid-19 testing site in the basement of the airport. With supervisors everywhere, Zhu was separated from other travelers based on her country of origin and then bussed to a stadium where she awaited assignment to a government hotel. For both parties, the entire process to get to their quarantine facility took in excess of ten hours.
Scruggs, on his 10th day of quarantine at a hotel in Shanghai, as of Nov. 21, had to pay for his stay out of pocket and will also complete an additional seven days of quarantine, mandated by NYUSH. With the latest communication from the university indicating that 95 international students have already returned successfully, it looks as though all else being equal, what has been a tough year for all students across the global network is slowly returning to normalcy at NYUSH.
“Once you get through this process and you’re out of quarantine, you don’t have to worry about Covid-19. Shanghai is a city of 26 million people and there are three active cases,” said Scruggs. ”Once you’re done you’re back to normal life.”
Dylan Palladino is Managing Editor. Email him at
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