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China’s university entrance exams are already stressful. Now add covid.

Students are cheered as they enter a school for the annual college entrance exams in Beijing on June 7. (Mark R Cristino/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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SHENZHEN, China — Zhu Yongtao has spent more than a month locked down at his high school here in southern China so he can take the biggest exam of his life.

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

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

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

The pandemic has made this tough three-day exam even more challenging. This year, 120 students are taking the gaokao in quarantine centers, and 700 students are taking it from some other sort of lockdown, according to Chinese publication the Paper, citing China’s Ministry of Education. Twelve coronavirus-positive students in Beijing, Liaoning and Sichuan are taking the test from 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 the autumn, when China’s leader, Xi Jinping, is expected to break precedent by staying on for a third term.

Local officials are anxiously trying to avoid an outbreak on their turf ahead of the congress. School administrators nationwide have been tasked with doing everything they can to keep the gaokao from becoming a superspreader event.

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

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

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

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Many gaokao takers have had their three years of high school study repeatedly disrupted by pandemic lockdowns and periods of remote learning.

In Shenzhen, a father who only gave his surname, Peng, worried that his daughter faced an uphill battle against high school seniors in cities that have had fewer lockdowns.

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

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

On Tuesday morning, he stood outside the test site to cheer her on from afar. The buses brought the masked students directly into the test center, past the parents standing outside. Staffers held up signs to remind pedestrians to keep quiet so the students could concentrate. A red banner had been strung along the street median: “Gaokao is underway. Please maintain silence.”

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

The Beijing version of the exam this year includes a choice of three short essays, one of which is to write a slogan encouraging social distancing while waiting in line for coronavirus tests, according to the Paper.

A number of Chinese universities have been operating as closed campuses this year, even in cities like Nanjing that were reporting zero new coronavirus cases. Student protests over restrictions have erupted at some colleges, including at the prestigious Peking University in the capital.

Students heading to college next year will be doing so during a period of flux. In addition to the covid restrictions, there has been a government effort to infuse the curriculum with more patriotic education. Xi has also called on universities to resist following the examples of those abroad, prompting several to opt out of foreign rankings, which could have an impact for further studies.

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

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

Chiang reported from Taipei, Taiwan.

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