Chinese students take gaokao university exams under the shadow of covid

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SHENZHEN, China — Zhu Yongtao has spent more than a month locked up in his high school here in southern China so he can take the biggest exam of his life.

On Tuesday morning, in a light drizzle, he strode into an exam hall for the “gaokao”, China’s notoriously grueling university entrance exam.

“I’m still a little nervous, even though we prepared a lot,” said Zhu, a bespectacled 17-year-old in a blue and white uniform. “It definitely motivated us to be locked down at school for 40 days. We were able to focus on studies.

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Under China’s strict “zero covid” policy, even a single positive case in a school could put everyone in quarantine. To ensure an outbreak wouldn’t derail the university’s hopes, Zhu’s school and others across the country sealed themselves off weeks before the gaokao, with students and teachers banned from leaving. the campus.

The pandemic has made this difficult three-day exam even more difficult. This year, 120 students are taking gaokao in quarantine centers and 700 students are taking it from another kind of confinement, according to Chinese publication The Paper, citing China’s Ministry of Education. Twelve coronavirus-positive students in Beijing, Liaoning and Sichuan are being tested at field hospitals.

With a record 11.93 million students taking it this year, the exam will put a strain on China’s pandemic prevention system, as the largest mass gathering ahead of a crucial Chinese Communist Party congress in fall, when Chinese leader Xi Jinping is expected. break the precedent by staying for a third term.

Local officials are anxiously trying to avoid an outbreak in their territory before the congress. School administrators nationwide have been instructed to do everything possible to prevent the gaokao from becoming a superspreader event.

Unlike the United States, where college admission is assessed on a range of factors, in China it largely comes down to gaokao scores. There is enormous pressure for students to pass the test, which can affect the rest of their lives.

“All I can do is call my daughter and tell her to relax,” a mother said Tuesday morning outside a gaokao testing site in Shenzhen, who gave only her last name, Dai. . “There’s no need to add to his stress.”

In Shanghai, China’s most populous city, the gaokao has been delayed for a month as the city emerges from a traumatic two-month lockdown.

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Many gaokao takers have seen their three years of high school repeatedly interrupted by pandemic closures and periods of distance learning.

In Shenzhen, a father who gave only his surname, Peng, feared his daughter would face an uphill battle against high school students in cities that have had fewer lockdowns.

“This class is particularly unfortunate,” Peng said. “They have been taking online courses for three years. If they have to compete with students from across the country, they will be at a disadvantage.

Peng said her daughter was only able to come home for visits four times during the school year due to pandemic restrictions.

On Tuesday morning, he stood outside the test site cheering her on from afar. Buses brought masked students straight into the testing center, past parents standing outside. Staff members held up signs reminding pedestrians to be quiet so students could concentrate. A red banner had been hung along the embankment: “Gaokao is in progress. Please keep quiet.

The exam covers Chinese, math and a foreign language for all students, with different sections for those planning to major in social or natural sciences. There are variations from region to region.

The Beijing version of this year’s exam includes a choice of three short essays, one of which involves writing a slogan encouraging social distancing while queuing for coronavirus tests, according to the newspaper.

A number of Chinese universities have operated as closed campuses this year, even in cities like Nanjing that reported no new coronavirus cases. Student protests against the restrictions have erupted at some colleges, including the prestigious Peking University in the capital.

Students heading to college next year will do so during a period of flux. In addition to the covid restrictions, there has been a government effort to infuse the curriculum with a more patriotic education. Xi also called on universities to resist the example of overseas ones, prompting several to withdraw from overseas rankings, which could impact further education.

On Tuesday morning, 18-year-old Lin Liyi said he believed he was ready to face the test, despite the challenges.

“We were locked up at school for a month,” he said. “It had a pretty big impact.”

Chiang reported from Taipei, Taiwan.

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