Virus-related closures disrupt university entrance exams

Extended school closures due to the COVID-19 novel coronavirus outbreak are raising concerns that high-stakes university entrance exam schedules in some Asian countries will be disrupted, and that delays and disruptions could have knock-on effects for the coming intake later this year.

Japan, which started its second round of university entrance exams on schedule this week, but with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on 27 February ordering all primary, middle and high schools to close from 2 March until the end of the spring vacations – usually around early April; and Hong Kong, with extended school and university closures, are particularly affected.

Elsewhere in Asia, universities are putting particular measures in place for the start of postponed university semesters, particularly in South Korea, which is expecting a large number of Chinese students to return for the start of the semester in the coming two weeks.

China has no opening dates for the new semester for universities, leaving it to provincial authorities to determine reopening once the virus outbreak is effectively under control in each province. Even then classes can only reopen on a staggered basis to reduce the numbers on campus.

This week Hong Kong extended school closures to 20 April – effectively suspending an entire school term – but the city’s education bureau has insisted that written tests for university entrance exams will be held as planned from 27 March, with “stepped up hygiene measures” including wider spaces between candidates and masks for all candidates.

Some 52,000 students sit the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education exams required for university entrance.

Hong Kong has seen some 90 cases and two deaths related to COVID-19 as of 26 February, but the impact has been greater than elsewhere as school and university classes were suspended in November last year due to anti-government protests and students have been affected by months of disruption. Some schools have been closed for more than 13 weeks.

Hong Kong’s exam authorities announced special grading arrangements for those unable to take the exam using a calculation based on their school grades. However, under the system being proposed, the two highest grades will not be awarded in any individual subject, which many say will disadvantage some of the strongest pupils affected by the virus and associated quarantine measures.

In contrast with Hong Kong, Taiwan – with some 30 cases of infection and a very low number of new infections – reopened schools this week after a two-week delay, though with travels bans in place for those travelling from China or Hong Kong. This year’s summer break will begin two weeks later, on 15 July instead of 1 July, so no teaching days are lost, education authorities announced.

Dates for college entrance examinations in June will not change, Taiwan’s Education Minister Pan Wen-chung said, but dates for specific papers will be adjusted so that candidates are not disadvantaged, he said earlier this month.

With Taiwan’s universities due to reopen on 3 March, the education ministry has issued guidelines stating that if one teacher or student is confirmed with COVID-19, all the courses they teach or attend will be cancelled.

Classes will be halted in the university if two or more teachers or students are confirmed as having contracted the disease.

Sharing a border with China, Vietnam has also closed its schools, with proposals by government officials in Ho Chi Minh City to extend closures to the end of March, although it has had just over a dozen coronavirus cases and no recorded deaths.

Japan: some universities propose catch-up exams

A second round of entrance exams for some 168 national and public universities across Japan began on Tuesday as scheduled, with many test-takers wearing masks.

They included test-takers in Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, which has confirmed a total of 35 people infected with COVID-19 as of 25 February, one of the worst affected prefectures. The majority of Japan’s more than 600 coronavirus cases were on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship berthed at Yokohama.

The Hokkaido education board said it would call for the closure of its 1,600 primary and middle schools from 27 February, but students at high schools will themselves decide whether to stay at home as a precautionary measure.

“Unless relief measures are taken, there is a possibility that people will force themselves to take the test and the virus will spread at testing sites,” an Osaka Prefecture University official in charge of entrance examinations was quoted by the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper as saying this week.

For those who cannot take the exam due to coronavirus infection, some universities such as Hokkaido University, Osaka Prefecture University and Nagoya Institute of Technology will refer to a student’s scores on the first round of the university entrance examinations held in January, alongside school reports and other documents to decide on admissions, Japan’s Kyodo news agency reported.

The January tests were held by the National Center for University Entrance Examinations over two days starting on 18 January – a week before the lockdown at the virus epicentre in Wuhan, China, was declared on 23 January. They were held at some 690 venues across Japan with 557,700 registering to take the exam.

Not all universities have clearly stated how they will deal with those who cannot take the examinations, but some such as Tokyo Institute of Technology said they intended to hold a catch-up examination in March for those unable to sit this week’s exams.

Others have not scheduled catch-up exams including the prestigious University of Tokyo and other major universities such as Nagoya University. A Tokyo University official in charge of entrance examinations said: “As the number of infections isn’t dramatically increasing in Japan, we’ve determined that make-up exams are not necessary.”

China: staggered opening but no dates yet

China, which officially has more than 81,000 cases and 2,769 deaths since early December, has announced that opening dates for the new semester for colleges and universities should ‘in principle’ be “no earlier than the effective control of the novel coronavirus outbreak”, China’s Ministry of Education said on Monday, leaving specific dates in the hands of individual provincial authorities.

Different regions should plan according to the epidemic’s local developments, the ministry said, noting that the opening dates should be staggered. Specific dates have not been announced by any province.

The education bureau in Wuhan, Hubei province, which is the epicentre of the outbreak and the city worst affected, has postponed classes until 20 April at the earliest, with schools having to provide online lessons for a minimum of three weeks.

An official in Guangzhou in Guangdong, the southern province bordering on Hong Kong and the second most affected province in China after Hubei, said the emergency would only be over when there were no new confirmed cases.

However, Guangdong has large numbers of migrant workers in its towns and cities, which complicates the picture, he said.

Provincial authorities said schools and colleges would resume classes in phases, with those about to take the national college exam known as the gaokao in June to be the first to return, followed by students about to graduate from secondary vocational schools and technical institutes and others only after that.

Universities and colleges would also stagger the opening of their departments, to ensure large numbers do not gather in one place, the Guangzhou official said.

But universities should not reopen before primary and secondary schools do, officials said. Some missed teaching would be replaced by catch-up classes on weekends or on some days during the summer vacation.

China’s Ministry of Education has said it will launch inspections of virus control and prevention measures on campuses, including the disease monitoring and quarantine measures being put in place by individual institutions, according to a recent ministry circular. The inspections will include how teaching is conducted during the outbreak, it said.

South Korea: preparing for the return of Chinese students

South Korea, which has seen a sharp rise in infections since 20 February, was already on alert before infection clusters in the city of Daegu and in Cheongdo County were found, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in announced on 23 February that the alert level on COVID-19 would be raised to the highest level.

Some 833 cases of COVID-19 infection have been confirmed in South Korea, the largest number outside China, with seven deaths as of 25 February. A big influx of returning Chinese students in the coming weeks could complicate efforts to contain the virus outbreak, the authorities say.

Nearly 40,000 of some 70,000 Chinese students enrolled in universities in South Korea have yet to return to the country for the spring semester. Of those, some 19,000 students are scheduled to arrive in the country within the next two weeks, according to the education ministry in Seoul.

The ministry said 70,979 Chinese students were enrolled in South Korean universities, with 32,591 currently in South Korea and 38,388 still in China, many of them expected to return soon, although the ministry recently advised Chinese students who had not bought their return tickets to take the whole semester off.

The education ministry is recommending that universities in Korea sign agreements to mutually recognise credits for Chinese students for select online courses of other universities, allowing them to gain credits while stuck in China.

For those returning, a special counter has been set up at the Incheon Airport to aid Chinese students, who will be taken to their universities in vehicles provided by the government or university, said the ministry.

Precautionary measures include extra isolation facilities for students not accommodated in university dormitories and daily health checks. But it is far from clear that all incoming Chinese students can be quarantined appropriately for two weeks after arrival, according to Korean health officials.

Seoul’s Kyung Hee University, with some 3,840 Chinese students enrolled – the highest number among the country’s universities – began to receive students returning from China this week, ahead of the start of the spring semester on 16 March. However, a university official said that some had delayed or cancelled their return so “the number could be smaller than expected”.

North Korea: outbreak speculation

Across the border, in North Korea, all primary and secondary schools and universities outside the capital Pyongyang are closed until 20 March, with students at universities in Pyongyang confined to their dormitories if their homes are outside the capital, or told to return home if they live in Pyongyang.

North Korea borders on China and has limited medical facilities and personnel to contain a serious virus outbreak. However, the stringent and unprecedented measures have led to speculation among diplomats in Pyongyang, who have been locked into their compounds and are not allowed out into the city, that an outbreak may already have occurred.

Singapore: student exchanges suspended

A number of universities in Singapore, including the National University of Singapore and Singapore Management University, which had already suspended student exchanges with Hong Kong and China, have extended the suspension to dozens of students about to depart on exchanges with institutions in South Korea and have advised Singaporean students already in Korea to return as soon as possible.