10 million students ready for toughest exam amid pandemic and floods

By Cao Siqi and Shan Jie Source:Global Times Published: 2020/7/6 21:18:40

Members from the Blue Sky Rescue team disinfect a site for gaokao in Xuzhou, East China's Jiangsu Province on Monday. Photo: cnsphoto

In a twist of fate, 10 million students in China mostly born in 2002, the year when the SARS outbreak emerged in the country and left many scars, are about to take the toughest examinations of their lives on Tuesday, with unforgettable and painful memories caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic. 

The year of 2020 is doomed to be special for them as it is the first time that the country had postponed the date of examination for a month due to the public health crisis since the country restored the college entrance examinations, or gaokao, in 1977; the first time that their classes were interrupted repeatedly, forcing them to spend most of the critical time for test preparation on online classes at home; and for the first time, they not only have to take the tests of Chinese, math, English, and either the sciences or liberal arts, but also the tests of body temperature, even nucleic acid. 

One shot for life 

Three weeks ago, Jiujiu's high school life was hastily interrupted. Due to Beijing's new wave of COVID-19 outbreak originating from the Xinfadi food market, the capital suspended all campus-based study after it raised its emergency response level to Level II on June 16.

"It was sad not being able to say goodbye to my classmates properly," Jiujiu, the 18-year-old senior high school graduate from Beijing's Dongcheng district told the Global Times on Sunday. "There was no graduation ceremony…we had to photoshop our group photo, marking the end of high school life."

During the spring semester, Jiujiu had only been in the classroom for seven weeks and for the rest of the time she was trapped at home as the whole nation implemented self-quarantine policies until late April, when Beijing's high schools reopened for graduates.

Jiujiu felt studying at home more flexible, yet less efficient. Though she is not really nervous about the upcoming "life-changing" examination, her other classmates showed extreme anxiety in the prolonged month of study as they could not help speculating whether the delay will help or harm their scores. 

The epidemic has not only impacted these students, but also their parents. Yang, Jiujiu's mother, said the uncertainty regarding exam arrangements and college enrollment has been haunting her over the past six months.

In China, students' gaokao results are the only criteria for admission to universities. Most Chinese students only get one shot that "decides their destiny" and Chinese people compare the gaokao to "thousands of people crossing a narrow bridge." 

Created in 1952, the exam date of the gaokao has only been affected three times. It was cancelled during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and restarted in late 1977 as a history-making event, in which there was no limit on the age or official educational background of examinees. The date was shifted permanently from July to June from 2003 in a bid to avoid difficult and unstable weather such as heat waves and floods. It was postponed for 120,000 students in Sichuan in 2008 who were affected by the devastating Wenchuan earthquake.  

A total of 10.71 million students will sit this year's gaokao, an increase of 400,000 from last year. It is worth mentioning that starting from this year, Beijing, Tianjin, Shandong and Hainan will join the country's education reforms, which will see the gaokao extended to four days. In addition to math, Chinese and English, which are mandatory subjects, examinees can take an exam for three elective subjects.

Extra tests 

On Monday, Jiujiu and her family went to check the exam site. "Staff were sterilizing the site," Yang said. This year, each exam room has 20 candidates instead of 30 as usual, and Yang has been reporting Jiujiu's health condition to the school's WeChat group every day for two weeks as per the requirements of local education authorities.

Gaokao will be the largest organized event in the country since the outbreak of COVID-19. More than 7,000 exam sites will be set up across the country, including around 400,000 exam rooms, and 945,000 people will work as supervisors or service workers, the Xinhua News Agency reported. 

Several teachers from high schools across the nation reached by the Global Times on Monday said temperature measurement offices have been set up at the campuses and spare classrooms have been prepared in case anyone exhibits symptoms of fever and cough during the exam. Disinfectant, hand sanitizer and special garbage bins have been placed in classrooms. 

Apart from strict safety measures, psychological experts were also arranged to help relieve stress and anxiety for students before the tests. All designated exam sites in Beijing have been under closed-off management. Similar measures have also been applied in other cities. 

Many students and their parents go to temples to pray for good luck on Friday in Xi'an, Northwest China's Shaanxi Province, as gaokao, China's national college entrance examination, begin next week. Photo: IC

Witnessing history

Dubbed as the "toughest" crop of graduating students, who also experiencing incessant downpours that continue to wreak havoc across vast stretches of the country, many joked that they feel like their generation was chosen by God and are really witnessing history. 

Factories near test sites suspended operation; vehicles stopped honking horns passing through downtown areas; buses began to provide free trips; water at the sites free to drink; "the entire world is working hard for you and please do not give up on yourself," netizens said encouragingly on the social media platform … these examinees are setting out on to the "battlefield" with the best of wishes.  

In Wuhan, Central China's Hubei Province - the hardest-hit area in China by the coronavirus outbreak, a taxi fleet was spotted on the streets. They were a group of medical volunteers who fought at the epidemic frontline five months ago. Now they are ready to sweat it out for the students.  

Wuhan has 59,000 candidates for gaokao this year. The city has prepared 220,000 specially-made masks for gaokao candidates, local media reported. Once students enter their examination rooms, they will be required to change their masks to ones with "Wuhan Gaokao" printed on them.

Having stepped out of the darkest moments, many candidates in Hubei said they decided to apply for medicine as their major in college. 

A student surnamed Chen in Huanggang, the second-most populous city in Hubei which also suffered greatly from the epidemic, told the Global Times that he was planning to apply for universities in Beijing or Shanghai, but now, he decided to stay in Wuhan. 

"The gaokao is just the beginning. I feel like I need to learn to live with the virus and I chose to stand with my hometown," he said. 

Meanwhile, the case of a woman who was replaced by another person in university admission 23 years ago in Shandong Province also put this year's gaokao into the spotlight. The case triggered public outrage toward deeper problems regarding educational inequality.

A variety of fraud cases have been testing the fairness and justice of the gaokao system for over a year, Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of the Shanghai-based 21st Century Education Research Institute, told the Global Times. 

However, China has been implementing several policies to curb such problems, which has guaranteed fairness in the big picture. The public expects the further expansion of the fairness of the test and give full play to the system regarding talent selection, Xiong said. 

There has been a discussion in society about whether to cancel the gaokao. In recent years, more overseas universities have started recognizing gaokao scores and accepted Chinese students' applications directly based on the scores, which shows the rising credibility and authority of the system. China's gaokao system should be reformed, with emphasis on the reform of the admissions system, Xiong said. 

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