China tries to keep Covid-19 out of gruelling 'gaokao' college entrance exams

Some test takers are discouraged from leaving their homes for two weeks before the exam. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (NYTIMES) - For Chinese students, years of intense studying come down to two or three nine-hour days of testing that will determine where they go to college. Covid-19 has added complications like escaping lockdown or testing in an isolation room.

Temperature checks, masks and negative PCR test results are the basic prerequisites for the record 11.9 million students who registered to take the exam that started on Tuesday (June 7).

Some test takers are discouraged from leaving their homes for two weeks before the exam. Others must travel to testing sites in specially arranged vehicles from their homes in locked-down areas.

For those who have tested positive for the coronavirus or are a close contact of someone with the virus, isolation or hospital rooms are prepared.

After recently suffering an omicron outbreak that put tens of millions of people under lockdown, China is trying to keep the exam, known as the gaokao, Covid-free.

The gruelling test determines the less than 2 per cent of candidates who will be able to enrol in the country's top universities and is a hot topic in Chinese news media and social media every June.

During the pandemic, photos of dreary isolation rooms where some students are required to take exams have been widely shared each year. One image posted by a local government this year showed an ultraviolet lamp being used to disinfect exam papers.

In Shanghai, where residents were under strict lockdown for nearly two months, the gaokao was postponed altogether until July. In Beijing, where Covid-19 restrictions were relaxed this week, health officials reminded residential compounds to mute the speakers that blare out pandemic warnings in the days leading up to the exam, to help students concentrate.

On Tuesday, the Communist Party tabloid Global Times published an editorial cheering on the "online course generation" that spent most of their three years in high school life under the shadow of the coronavirus.

"We sincerely wish the best for every candidate and salute the eternal spirit of struggle," it read.

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