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2020-03-31 09:46:27

China’s notoriously difficult college entrance exam, the gaokao, is being postponed for one month because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ministry of Education announced Tuesday.

According to the announcement, this year’s administration of the gaokao — a nine-hour standardized test that evaluates students in Chinese, math, English, and either the sciences or liberal arts — will be held on July 7-8. Given the unique COVID-19 situations in different provinces, local governments in Hubei and Beijing are allowed to propose additional adjustments to their gaokao schedules, the ministry said.

This is the first time the make-or-break test will be postponed nationwide since it was resumed in 1977 following the Cultural Revolution. In 2008, after the Wenchuan earthquake left more than 80,000 people dead or missing in China’s heartland, some 120,000 students from Sichuan and Gansu provinces had to take the test not in June, but a month later.

Since the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak, whether the gaokao will be postponed has been a hot topic for the country’s roughly 10 million high school seniors. During a press conference on Feb. 28, Weng Tiehui, China’s deputy education minister, said that a decision would be made after a comprehensive evaluation of the outbreak’s impact, the safety of students and teachers, and the precautionary measures that can be taken in examination rooms.

The ministry said it arrived at its decision by following the principle of “being fair first.” Since the gates of most schools in China were closed because of the pandemic and students of all ages were shunted to online classes, those living in rural areas or disadvantaged homes have had an especially hard time coping with the new arrangement.

“Given the different online study conditions across urban and rural areas, the impact on some students preparing for the exam in villages and poor areas has been much greater,” the ministry said in a detailed explanation Tuesday afternoon. Earlier this month, a ninth grader tried to kill herself after falling behind in her online classes because she did not have regular access to a computer or smartphone.

This year’s high school seniors are sometimes described as the most “tragic” class since the gaokao was resumed. “Born in the year of the SARS outbreak and taking the gaokao in the year of COVID-19,” reads one popular online comment.

As students in other grades continue to study from home, high school seniors in some provinces have already come back to campus to prepare for the gaokao. Tang Yi, the director of education at Zhenjiang No. 1 High School in the eastern Jiangsu province, told Sixth Tone that around 900 seniors at the school resumed classes on Monday, in accordance with the local government’s schedule.

“We set different times for students to arrive on campus, and every student and teacher is required to wear a mask and ensure the greatest possible distance between desks during class,” Tang said, adding that staff disinfect the classrooms at the end of each school day.

Following the announcement of the gaokao’s postponement, Tang convened a conference with his fellow teachers. Together, they drew up detailed plans for their students and discussed how teachers from other grades could motivate or otherwise help seniors during the extra month.

“For the top students, they will be better prepared for top universities,” Tang said. “For the other students, they will have a higher chance of achieving an academic breakthrough and a shot at their dream schools.”

However, the delayed gaokao may only add to the pressure felt by overstressed students.

“For some students who are already burned out because of the gaokao, this is not good news,” a Shanghai student surnamed Lei told Sixth Tone. Yet he believes that having an extra month to study will make up for any edge lost during the past two months of distance learning. “For undisciplined students like me, the online classes aren’t as effective as real ones,” Lei said.

Some teachers and parents, meanwhile, have expressed concerns about the gaokao being rescheduled during the hottest time of the year.

“The gaokao was moved to June (in 2003) because the weather got to be too hot in July,” a veteran high school teacher surnamed Hong told Sixth Tone. “If it’s later in the summer, this may cause controversy between parents and students about whether they should study and take the exams in air-conditioned rooms. They might worry about the students catching cold, or not being able to focus because of the noise from the air conditioners.”

Editor: David Paulk.

(Header image: High school seniors wear masks during class in Kunming, Yunnan province, March 23, 2020. IC)