(NEW YORK) — Teenagers Lily Chen and Steven Song are among the rare few to have experienced the global COVID-19 pandemic from virus hot zones on two continents.
As the outbreak swept the U.S. in March, the Chinese high school seniors at an American boarding school evacuated their campus to eastern China, where their families were already on lockdown as infection rates peaked.
“I was really worried about my parents, because my dad just came back from Wuhan before the outbreak, so he was quarantined at home and then nobody knew what was going to happen,” Chen said in an interview from her home in Shanghai.
Now, a month later, the students from Shattuck-St. Mary’s School in Fairbault, Minnesota, are giving ABC News an inside look at their Chinese hometowns in recovery, revealing a new normal for their communities emerging from quarantine.
“We’re seeing a bright side here in China right now. So, I bet there’s going to be a bright side in the States. Definitely, it’s coming to you guys,” Chen said.
From his home in Hangzhou, China, Song described a slow resumption of ordinary activity: haircuts at the barber, visits to Starbucks, and dinner out with friends. Everyone is now wearing a mask, he said.
“You still have the risks of getting [coronavirus], but there is no panic about it. Just wear a mask and just go back to normal life, instead of staying in quarantine at home,” said Song.
But both students identified one big change to “normal life” across China: Residents in most major cities are now required to navigate a labyrinth of checkpoints and temperature checks.
“When we’re entering through shopping malls or Starbucks, they ask you to show your ‘green code’ in order to enter,” said Song.
Chinese authorities have implemented an electronic health status surveillance system that tracks personal COVID-19 testing data. A green code in the app indicates that a person has not tested positive for coronavirus, Song said.
Chen said some checkpoints involve the use of infrared thermometers to screen residents and identify people suspected of being sick who need to stay home.
“I can basically go anywhere wearing a face mask,” she said. “I have walked the cherry blossoms with my parents, gone outside with my friends, stuff like that.”
Like many high school students in the U.S., Chen and Song were abruptly disconnected from a traditionally celebratory right of passage across America: Senior seasons on the drill squad and basketball team cut-short; culminating coursework and exams forced online; and hopes of starting college in the fall potentially delayed.
“When I left Shattuck, I was never prepared for it — like leaving this fast. So I cried, actually, along with my friends and teachers as well. So it was pretty sad,” said Song, who played for the school’s basketball team.
Chen, who is the captain of the Shattuck “Wooden Soldiers” drill team, says she has been going stir crazy at home with her parents. “It’s another different experience because there is just no way I can spend five months at home; like, I haven’t been here for like five years!”
Both Chen and Song were accepted into U.S. universities this fall.
Tufts University, where Chen hopes to study biology and studio art, has warned new students that their “start date may be subject to sudden or unexpected delays.” Song intends to study nutrition at NYU, which says its planning on-time start to the school year, but is “prepared to make the necessary adjustments” for safety.
“Most universities just like us are very optimistic and planning for a normal school year in the fall. We simply must. But everybody’s talking about contingency plans,” said Andrew Garlinski, Shattuck’s admissions director and dean of international students. “I think we’re going to see a lot more education online. I think there’s going to be a lot more options.”
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