Millions sit test in SARS shadow

BEIJING: More than six million high school students across China were taking the most important test of their lives yesterday – one which the government has insisted on not postponing despite the SARS crisis. 

Some 6.13 million students began sitting the two-day college entrance exams this weekend amid strict measures that were imposed on all test sites to prevent the further spread of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). 

Candidates were required to pass physical examinations several days before the tests. And on the days of the exams, they will have their temperatures checked before being allowed into testing rooms. 

More test sites were set up as the government allowed a maximum of 20 students in the thoroughly disinfected rooms, down from 30 in previous years. 

Normally a nerve-wracking experience for teenagers, the test this year will be even tougher as many students missed about a month of school last month due to classroom closures over the SARS outbreak. 

Many of the students did not leave their homes, and could only study by themselves as their parents feared they would contract the disease. 

“It was difficult for my son. Studying without his classmates around was boring,” said Hou Keqin, who was among a large crowd of parents anxiously waiting outside the Beijing Dianmen Middle School, a test site. 

Teachers called students every day, making sure they were doing their homework and preparing for the exam. 

Students coming out of the school after their morning exams said despite SARS, the test was top priority for them. It plays a crucial role in deciding the youngsters' future. 

Without a college degree, young people in China have no chance of getting the good jobs. 

Competition is so intense for the country's scarce college places that only about half of the 6.13 million test takers would be accepted. 

“Even though it's a special period of SARS, gao kao (college-entrance exams) is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Regardless of how we do in the end, we have to try our best so we don't have any regrets,” said Zhou Yue, an 18-year-old girl gulping down bottled water after the morning session. 

The nationwide test is considered the first major public event since the government admitted on April 20 to an outbreak that struck several parts of the country. 

Despite sharply declined SARS cases, local governments have been urged to assure the safety of the students. 

China's ministries of health and education last month issued orders calling on local education departments to ensure a hygienic environment for test takers, good ventilation, and clean desks and chairs, the China Daily said. 

In this capital, test invigilators and school staff have been urged not to wear the white medical gowns that have become common among officials since SARS hit China, in a bid to reduce stress among exam candidates, the Beijing Morning Post said. 

For similar reasons, temperature-takers are also told to not tell students their body temperatures, unless it is 38°C which means they would be taken to hospital. 

“We are paying attention to every detail, so the students can be very relaxed,” said Qu Kaiming, a doctor at the Beijing No. 4 Middle School. 

Police officers were posted outside the Beijing Dianmen Middle School, making sure no one enters other than students and crews disinfecting the rooms during lunch break. 

“Even we can't get in,” one officer said. 

For parents waiting outside the schools with bottled water and snacks to give to the youngsters once they come out, how their child performs was what dominated their thoughts, not SARS. 

“Without an education, it's useless. If he gets into college, it will still be difficult to find work, but at least there will be more choices,” said Hou. – AFP 

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