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How coronavirus is affecting CMU staff, students, alumni


Public Relations Professor Chunbo Ren is currently in Yantai, Shandong Province in eastern China on sabbatical leave. Ren has seen the effects of the coronavirus first hand as Yantai has directly been impacted. 

It had been 12 years since public relations faculty member Chunbo Ren had spent the Chinese New Year with his family in Yantai, Shandong Province, China. 

Ren was excited to use the spring 2020 semester as an opportunity to both spend time with his family and do some research. 

It was not until Ren arrived in China for his sabbatical leave that he realized the looming health threat of coronavirus. 

Yantai is about 13 hours from Wuhan, China, where the outbreak first started. He was celebrating Chinese New Year’s Eve when his family received the news about the first case of COVID-19 in Yantai. 

“Usually visiting relatives and friends is a major tradition in (the) Chinese New Year holiday,” Ren said. “For this year, people were strongly advised to stay at home.”

Due to the outbreak, and about 80,000 total cases being reported from China, Ren only leaves his home to take the trash out every two days and his brother-in-law brings him food. 

Ren considered flying back to the United States when the severity of the virus increased but held off. 

He wouldn’t have been able to finish his research and many previous flights to the United States were being suspended. 

On top of that, Ren was concerned about how he would be treated if he returned to the United States at this time. Some students are feeling this way, too. 

“I concern the potential stigma I may experience – you know, I’m from China. People may (be) concerned that I may bring the virus to Michigan," Ren said. "I could be a threat to people’s health."

Ren said Yantai is using strict border control and local quarantine policies to prevent the spread. Each traveler must take a 14-day quarantine before moving around the town or doing business. The highway is blocked so only those with special permits may drive. 

For nearly three weeks, there have not been any new cases confirmed in Yantai. Businesses and malls are starting to open back up, he said. 

Since Ren’s comments through email over the past few days, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has announced that two confirmed cases exist in the state – one in Wayne County and one in Oakland County. 

Over the next 24 hours, businesses, universities and government organizations have scrambled to act and take precautions. Michigan State University switched to online classes and served as the first domino to fall. MSU was followed by CMU, Wayne State, Western Michigan and the University of Michigan in either canceling or switching to online classes. 

All CMU classes have been moved to an online format until March 20, and students have been advised to not return to campus after spring break. A decision regarding classes for the following week will be determined by 4 p.m. Thursday, March 19. 

While a faculty member is feeling safe in Yantai, Shandong Province, China, a CMU alumna is finding that she might be out of a job. 

Paige Sheffield, a 2018 graduate, teaches spoken English and creative writing at a school in Shanghai, China. She said the coronavirus outbreak has left her “uncertain” about what will happen next with her career. 

Sheffield has been in the United States for a little over a month waiting for the opportunity to go back to work. Due to the spread of this virus, schools in Shanghai are holding classes online only.

“All of the schools in Shanghai are closed right now. They’re doing online classes," Sheffield said. “I did a few online classes, but then the school basically decided that they don’t want to have too many online classes for the students. So right now I’m teaching fewer classes than I did in person just because of that format.”

Even if Sheffield wanted to return to China, she still could not work due to her school’s closure. Due to this, her pay has been something she has been unsure of.

“I don’t know what the pay will be like,” Sheffield said. “There’s really no way around that because even if I went back to China I wouldn’t be able to teach any more classes than I am right now.”

Meanwhile, Sheffield still has to pay rent to her Shanghai apartment, where many of her possessions remain. 

Sheffield is trying to remain calm, but at one point, she considered seeking employment elsewhere. 

CMU philosophy faculty member Hope May planned to travel to South Korea to lead a teaching workshop at a local Seoul bookstore and lecture at Yonsei University. 

Before her departure, CMU rescinded the trip’s approval. May is pleased with the precautions that CMU is taking. 

“CMU is doing its due diligence. I have no complaints here and am glad to see that the university is exercising due care for its community,” May said.