UP CLOSE: Circuit breaking and contact tracing at Yale-NUS

Circuit breaking and contact tracing at Yale-NUS

Published on September 10, 2020

Nearly 17 years before COVID-19 would rattle Wuhan and the world at large, another coronavirus wreaked havoc throughout Asia, infecting over 8,000 and killing 774.

SARS — Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome — landed in Singapore in 2003 after a former flight attendant was exposed to the disease during a shopping trip to Hong Kong. Esther Mok, one of Singapore’s index patients, or “patient zero(s),” is estimated to have infected over one hundred Singaporeans, including both of her parents who died of the virus. The Lion City experienced “two months of fear” and 33 deaths as a result of SARS, according to Singapore’s National Center for Infectious Disease. For many Singaporeans, the SARS scare persisted in living memory when a novel coronavirus threatened to put the city through another public health emergency in 2020.

In the nearly two decades between outbreaks, the face of Singapore changed considerably. The city-state’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, passed away; a blockbuster love story inspired by the city’s elite rocked the world and the National University of Singapore partnered with Yale to create an autonomous hybrid college — Yale-NUS. Amidst all this change, Singapore was able to refine its public health infrastructure such that the new school would be among the best equipped in the world to confront a SARS-like emergency. Just last year, Singapore opened its National Center for Infectious Diseases equipped with 330 beds designed to combat a public health emergency like SARS. Unbeknownst to them, that emergency would begin on Jan. 23, 2020 when Singapore confirmed its first case of COVID-19.

While administrators and students at Yale and Yale-NUS praised, and learned from, the public health measures in place, there is no comparing SARS and COVID-19 in terms of number of cases. As of mid-September, Singapore experienced 27 deaths and over 57,000 cases due to COVID-19. SARS infected 238 Singaporeans, killing 33, according to the Straits Times.

The coronavirus pandemic crippled the school’s in-person functionality ahead of its partner institution in New Haven, allowing for Yale administrators to interface with Yale-NUS and strategize for the public health emergency to come.

Whether students are Zooming in from Southern Connecticut or Southeast Asia, the ripple effects of the pandemic have altered nearly every facet of college life. For students at Yale-NUS, directives from the Singpaorean government, college administrators and support from peers have made for a largely normal return to campus and a reimagining of undergraduate education that Yale-NUS President Tan Tai Yong believes will only make the College stronger. 


(Asha Prihar)

On March 18, Yale-NUS spokesperson Fiona Soh updated the News on the College’s response to the novel coronavirus. At the time, the school functioned in split teams to de-densify campus spaces and all students had the option to take classes online to reduce risk of transmission. At the time, Yale-NUS was working according to its Business Continuity Plan — a set of best practices designed to maintain functionality through emergency circumstances, according to the Singapore Ministry of Manpower.

“March BCP mode” meant twice daily temperature checks for those on campus, photographic attendance checks in classrooms to facilitate contact tracing, takeaway food options and a moratorium on gatherings of more than 50 people. The school’s joint open house for prospective students held with its partner National University of Singapore was moved online at the end of February. These measures were techy, innovative and severe in contrast to what world governments were anticipating at the time. According to Yale-NUS administrators, these measures were rooted in a national protocol known as the Disease Outbreak Response System Condition, or its Cold War-esque shorthand, DORSCON.

“[National crisis guidelines] are heavily informed by Singapore’s experience with SARS and the expertise developed in infectious disease management as a result,” executive Vice President of Yale-NUS Kristen Lynas told the News in March. “When the DORSCON risk assessment level was raised in February, the College was able to trigger its business continuity plan for infectious disease within hours.”

Yale-NUS maintained a stockpile of public health equipment such as thermometers and N-95 masks. Even though the College was rolling out pandemic gear — now known worldwide as PPE, or personal protective equipment — within hours of a DORSCON Code Orange, the school was forced to move all classes online in early April as part of Singapore’s “Circuit Breaker” transmission mitigation lockdown. During the Circuit Break, which lasted from April 7 to June 1, residents could only leave their homes for essential purposes such as buying groceries, seeking medical help, reporting for national service and perhaps most consequentially, to leave Singapore.

This, of course, meant that there would be no graduation festivities for the class of 2020. 

“We were informed that we had to move out in a few days, which was quite upsetting for the student body,” said Ysien Lau, a member of the College’s 2020 graduating class. “Yale-NUS has put in effort to quickly provide housing and food for students who need it, and the student government and the College’s Residential Life team have been great in coordinating last-minute storage facilitating and move-out procedures. We have also seen an overwhelming amount of support from a supportive and caring alumni community, who have offered to help financially, with moving out, searching for career opportunities or be a listening ear.”

Feroz Khan, who graduated from Yale-NUS in 2018, was among the first alumni to respond to students’ calls for support. Khan, a member of the alumni council, told the News that the school’s young alumni base was quick to create a Google Form where students and alumni could share and meet needs.

“Within 48 hours, people offered an overwhelming amount of resources,” Khan said.

The form was able to facilitate last minute housing, emergency cash and even free counseling from alumni who work in the mental health field. Khan — who himself sent cash via Paylah, Singapore’s answer to Venmo — said that he was impressed with how much Yale-NUS was able to do for its students, saying that the alumni “really only had to help fill in the gaps.”

The administration praised the community’s ability to take sweeping directives in stride.

“This is not the first challenge we have faced as a college, and I am sure it will not be the last,” executive Vice President Joanne Roberts said. “I have been deeply encouraged by how our community has pulled together at this time to look after each other while rising to each day’s challenges. Such examples of grace and selflessness are perhaps the richest lessons that each of us can be learning during this time.”

This is not the first challenge we have faced as a college, and I am sure it will not be the last.

—Joanne Roberts, Executive Vice President of Yale-NUS


For the first semester of the 2020-2021 academic year at Yale-NUS, the college has partially opened in accordance with Singaporean government directives. The college’s cautious steps — inspired by months of troubleshooting higher education during a pandemic — have made for a campus experience preferable to some Yalies who opted to remain in Singapore instead of returning to Yale. These structural changes began, of course, with the Zoom room.

Catherine Sanger serves as director of the Center for Teaching and Learning for Yale-NUS, and was on the vanguard of developing the educational online interface most institutions of higher learning are deploying this fall.

“The disruption, both logistical and emotional, of COVID-19 has meant I’ve had to make some hard choices about content to cut from my syllabus,” Sanger said.

Sanger added that students who were developing confidence in verbal expression are no longer engaging in face-to-face dialogue, which she said is “what really stings.” She hopes that the foundation from the beginning of the semester can be built on.

Nowadays, Sanger is far from alone in her Zoom woes. One of the more obvious deficits resulting from remote learning is a lack of interpersonal contact that brightens students’ college years.

To combat the mental health impact of the pandemic on the Yale-NUS community, students deployed wellness resources and care packages to finish off the semester.

Madhumitha Ayyappan, a student in the class of 2023, worked with the Student Government and the Wellness Committee to provide care packages including hand sanitizer, healthy snacks,  comic strips about COVID cautions and coloring cards for World Mental Health Day. She also engaged professional resources to generate conversations on mental health. Ayyappan and her fellow 2023 classmate Ivy Liao coordinated a talk with a Yale-NUS counselor and a scientist from Duke-NUS, another autonomous partner university attached to the National University of Singapore. Perhaps ironically, they were able to address COVID-19 anxieties over Zoom and conduct mindfulness sessions for students.

Ayyappan commented that the College has been “extremely cognisant” of issues students are experiencing due to the pandemic.

“They’ve been extremely supportive in this period and the administration decided to offer the option to all students to exercise the Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory option for any module taken last semester,” Ayyappan told the News. 

Additionally, Ayyappan pointed toward the College’s ability to troubleshoot the logistics of a highly international student body during a pandemic. She said that Yale-NUS was willing and able to accommodate more student requests for on-campus summer housing than normal, as many international students feared they would not be able to return to Singapore if they were to leave.

She added that the school increased accessibility to emergency funding, as well.

“The College has a robust system of aid and eligible students can seek financial assistance from the College to help with post-matriculation costs that may arise, this includes exceptional costs arising from the COVID-19 crisis such as the Stay Home Notice …  required by the government,” Executive Vice President Roberts said. “Our students’ safety and well-being are of utmost concern and we hope that this is one way we can provide some relief to them during this period.”

In addition to supporting students in financial distress due to the pandemic, the College has been able to provide guidance to students who just graduated into a mid-pandemic workforce.

Celeste Beh, who graduated this May, was assigned to an advisor in the College’s Center for International and Professional Experience who helped her navigate the uncertainties of transitioning into post-graduation life. She said that the counselor reached out to her regularly and directed her to helpful resources.

Beh’s circumstances illustrate how even in a country where COVID-19 is largely under control, global economic woes threaten to hinder the transition to life after college. In the case of some Yalies, circumstances have pushed them to rethink life during college altogether.


The Center for Disease Control reported nearly 300,000 worldwide cases of COVID-19 during the first week of the fall semester alone, and yet, there was no unified protocol for tackling the virus. For international students wary of traveling overseas and potentially putting themselves at risk in a global epicenter of the virus, returning to the United States for the fall is a formidable undertaking.

Yale Vice President for Global Strategy Pericles Lewis — who served as the inaugural president of Yale-NUS — said that Yale was more than willing to help international students find partner universities to study at during the 2020-2021 academic year.

Lindsay Allen, who works as senior associate director of international programs at Yale-NUS’ CIPE, said that Yale and Yale-NUS began to configure solutions for Singapore-based students early in the summer. Allen said her office helped interested students submit applications to the College and facilitate course registration for a COVID-esque take on education.

Five Singaporean Yale students took the school up on its offer and opted to enroll at Yale-NUS this fall. At a time when most college students’ study abroad experiences are on hold, these Yalies get to do it from the comfort of their hometown.

Before COVID-19 was characterized as a pandemic, Shermaine Koh ’22 was torn over news from her home in Singapore and a general disinterest in the virus while she was on campus in the US.

“[In January] we didn’t know anything about what was then called the ‘Wuhan virus,’” Koh said. “I just remember my family starting to be anxious and increasing numbers of cases popping up. I also remember feeling anxious for my family and yet going about life normally in the States. The conversations that were (ironically) going on then among the Singaporean students were whether or not we would go home for the summer.”

Koh said that she and other international students worried that they would not be able to return to the U.S. if they traveled to Asia, since the global virus’ epicenter was in East and Southeast Asia at the time.

She recalled worrying about whether to buy masks, and feeling alone in her anxiety about the situation.

Most of my American peers didn’t really seem too concerned about it at that point, which was perfectly normal since I also felt like being in the US made the virus (then a wee epidemic) feel like a faraway problem.

—Shermaine Koh ’22

“Most of my American peers didn’t really seem too concerned about it at that point, which was perfectly normal since I also felt like being in the US made the virus (then a wee epidemic) feel like a faraway problem,” she said.

Koh and a Singaporean friend of hers who studies in the U.K. were stuck in Toronto when news hit that their respective colleges would be online for the rest of the semester.

The Singaporean government began urging students to return home, where Koh’s parents wanted her anyway. She returned to her dorm in Silliman, lugged her belongings into the college’s storage basement and split for Singapore.

By late June, it looked unlikely that Yale would return to on-campus education in the fall, so Koh decided to reach out to Yale-NUS.

“I know this probably sounds absurd, but I’d long been casually joking about potentially taking a semester ‘abroad’ at Yale-NUS because I really wanted to take Southeast Asian studies. But that was really half in-jest,” Koh said. “It’s definitely not a joke now that I’m literally here.”

Now, Koh is again living in a residential college — Yale-NUS has three residential colleges in the style of its partner school in New Haven — where she has made new friends and has begun what she describes as the best semester ever, academically that is. As a history student with a primary interest in Southeast and East Asia, Koh said Yale-NUS has far more modules in that area than she would have been able to study at Yale.

Koh is not the only Singaporean Yalie feeling at home at home.

“I also love social life here — I actually found it easier integrating into [Yale-NUS] than Yale honestly,” Victoria Lim ’21, another Yalie who opted to enroll at Yale-NUS for the fall, said. “I clicked very quickly with my suitemates, and have met so many new people within the span of a month. The small student body means that it’s easy to expand your social network. It’s also a lot more international than Yale.”


On July 1, Yalies received word from President Peter Salovey and Provost Scott Strobel that the fall semester would primarily take place remotely. Salovey reported Yale’s testing strategies and density modifications that would allow for a partial return to residential life, in accordance with guidelines from Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont.

While taking directives from state authorities reflects new territory for Yale — a private institution — Yale-NUS’ integration with the government makes unified policy response the norm. As a part of the National University of Singapore, and by extension the national government, Yale-NUS answers to the Ministries of Health and Education when it comes to an emergency like COVID-19.

“[Institutes of higher learning] can bring students back on campus for small group classes with no more than 50 persons per class,” a spokesperson from Singapore’s Ministry of Education told the News. “All necessary safe management measures are taken, such as safe distancing of at least one metre between individuals and the implementation of SafeEntry, a national digital check-in system which logs individuals’ entry into a venue.”

Equipped with high tech public health infrastructure and a commitment to carrying on, Yale-NUS was able to reopen with facilities operating “as close to normal as possible,” according to an August Yale-NUS news post.

Sophomores Ayyappan and Liao said that while campus life has certainly changed — Ayyappan called it “mellow” — college life has persisted, despite the setbacks.

“The butteries aren’t open, some classes have shifted online and sports trainings have also been modified,” Ayyappan said. “I find myself spending more time in my suite and bonding with my suitemates instead. Nonetheless, I am extremely grateful that I get to be back on campus and see my friends. Some campus activities have been shifted over to Zoom (such as mindfulness classes), so I am still able to keep in touch with the community which is truly a blessing in these uncertain times.”

In an effort to keep the sense of community alive, Liao, who serves on her residential college council, helped to reimagine a Yale-NUS tradition for life during a pandemic. The “Start of Semester Dinner” normally involves the whole of Elm College gathering in the dining hall to share a meal, but per COVID-19 restrictions, the meals were delivered to individual suites and students showcased performances over Zoom.

Social distancing guidelines have also had consequences on athletic extra curriculars. Liao, who plays on the women’s basketball team, added that she noticed “differences in the rigor” of team practices. She noted that these restrictions have migrated to the classroom as well.

“While I am grateful to still be able to attend physical classes, getting used to the new rules (such as contact tracing, mask wearing, and safe distancing) has been quite challenging,” Liao wrote in an email. “Class discussions are sometimes unable to run as they did during normal circumstances and many professors have had to alter their teaching style (e.g. less discussions, different assessments) in response to these restrictions.”

Yale-NUS CTL Director Catherine Sanger spoke to the variety of problems she has faced in planning for continuity in academic life. The greatest challenge, she said, has been the need to confront two sets of demands at the same time.

The first set of demands pertains to safety measures for the classroom — masks and distance — which she wrote “impede[s]” communication. The second set has to do with remote instruction for students who are not taking classes in person. Sanger said that students in the classroom want for the experience to resemble pre-pandemic life as much as possible while students Zooming in often have difficulty engaging with the class.

Celeste Beh experienced at least half of a semester of remote instruction and lauded professors’ efforts despite the setbacks. 

“I will say that professors have been absolute champs in the classroom. All of them tried to keep us engaged while on Zoom despite them trying to get used to the technology and the difficulty of teaching virtually themselves.”

—Celeste Beh, member of the Yale-NUS class of 2020

“I will say that professors have been absolute champs in the classroom,” Beh wrote in an email to the News. “All of them tried to keep us engaged while on Zoom despite them trying to get used to the technology and the difficulty of teaching virtually themselves. As students, we sometimes get so caught up with feeling inconvenienced by online classes that we forget our professors are getting used to it too.”

Troubleshooting the hybrid nature of the COVID-19 classroom has been successful to the extent that Sanger and Ayyappan said academic life at Yale-NUS is alive and well. Ayyappan said that she would not describe academic life at Yale-NUS as “halted.”

“We are living through a global crisis and that is distracting and deeply troubling,” Sanger wrote. “However, I have been very fortunate to be here in Singapore largely safe and able to continue with my work.”

The commitment to continuity extends to a central component of any college: the library.

Principal Librarian Priyanka Sharma told the News that the experience has led to newfound team bonding within the library and also parent departments and colleagues from across Yale-NUS. Sharma has had to innovate to deliver information literacy sessions in a COVID-19 appropriate manner. She added that the library has focused on “clear and timely communication,” and new methods of engagement with the College community, like short videos on the library’s Instagram page.

Between fortifying its social media presence and aggressively reimagining the way college students interface with a college campus, Yale-NUS, like all schools, has had to think extensively about what it means to facilitate an education. Facing the existential challenge of a pandemic forced the Yale-NUS community to preserve what it considered vital to an education, and employed a fair amount of ingenuity to do so. President Tan praised innovation from community members like Sharma and Sanger, and said that COVID-19 has presented a variety of learning opportunities for Yale-NUS.

I hope we emerge from this crisis stronger than before,” Tan said. “The crisis has taught us how to be more adaptable and resilient as a community, and given us a chance to creatively find new opportunities to improve our policies and programmes.”

(Yale Daily News)


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