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Covid spectre haunts Saigon parents as students take national exam

By Long Nguyen   July 6, 2021 | 05:55 pm PT
Saigon parents are worried sick as their children take the national high school exam when the city has record numbers of Covid-19 patients.

A day before the national high school exam, Nguyen Thi Hoa took her daughter to the exam site in District 10 to complete the preparation procedures. She kept reminding her daughter to sanitize her hands every 10 minutes and never remove her mask.

"I am more worried after knowing some students have tested positive for the coronavirus before the exam; I cannot imagine what will happen if my girl gets infected," said Hoa.

The 41-year-old mother had an argument with her daughter last week because the latter insisted on taking the first phase of the exam. The fearful mother wanted her to take the second phase.

Saigon students talk after visiting their test site and completing the examination preparation procedures. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa.

Saigon students talk after visiting their test site and completing examination preparation procedures, July 6, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa.

The national high school exam is being organized in two phases, the first on July 7 and 8 and the second at a later, as yet unspecified date for students who’d come into contact with Covid patients or with others who had done so, and for students living in areas that are locked down. In Saigon, the worst-hit locality in the current coronavirus outbreak, students can choose between the two phases.

"Masks, hand gloves, face shields, and hand sanitizers are indispensable in this exam," Hoa said as she cleaned her daughter’s pens with alcohol pads.

The exam by itself is an extremely stressful event for parents because it is considered a seminal one that decides whether or not one will make it in life. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the fears and tensions.

The nationwide exams decide admissions to universities and colleges. For more than one million high school seniors in Vietnam, the exam days are the one time in their life they cannot afford to fall sick, have an accident, or get infected by the novel coronavirus.

But Saigon is struggling with the nation’s worst outbreak. As of Wednesday, the city had recorded 7,655 cases to become the latest pandemic epicenter.

Local authorities last week conducted the Covid test on more than 100,000 students and examiners. Twelve tested positive.

Le Thi Thu Thao, whose son Nguyen Thanh Tung hopes to enter the HCMC University of Technology, said family members have not gone out or met anyone in the last week in order to mitigate infection risks before the exam.

"We have worked from home and avoided venturing out, keeping ourselves ‘clean’ so Tung can be healthy and focus on the exam," Thao said, adding that her priority is her son’s safety, "not high scores."

Nguyen Thu Nga, mother of Nguyen Ngan Ha, a student at the Nguyen Thi Minh Khai High School, is scared of the pandemic and worried about her daughter’s safety.

"A mother like me cannot stop worrying when my daughter must take this exam with a lot of infection risks around. But I do not dare to talk much about Covid in front of her, I want her to feel comfortable," she said.

Adding to the safety concerns among parents is the fear that Covid-19 could impact exam preparation and results.

Ngo Van Nam is worried that his son will have to get at least 90 percent scores in each test to get admitted to the HCMC Medicine and Pharmacy University, a top university in town.

"I know he has pressure. How can he achieve good scores without peace of mind," Nam said, adding that while he wanted the son to take the second phase, "but he is too tired of waiting for the exam."

A survey carried out by the HCMC Department of Education and Training revealed that 36 percent of parents of 89,200 students in town have not agreed to let their children attend the first phase of the national high school exams.

Students can choose to take the second phase, but they are encouraged to take the first one, which will strictly follow Covid prevention measures, said Nguyen Van Hieu, deputy director of the municipal Department of Education and Training.

A student represents her Covid-19 test result, July 6, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran.

A Saigon student presents her Covid-19 test results, July 6, 2021. Most other localities do not require students to have Covid tests before the exam. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran.

Don’t want to wait

In contrast to the worried parents, most students want to take the exam sooner and have their summer break as soon as possible, instead of waiting for the second phase which is yet to be scheduled.

"I just want to finish this exam quickly, so it will be over and I can rest. It has been too long," said Hua Ngoc Hoang Khuyen, a student at the Dao Duy Anh High School.

She has spent the last few months revising math, literature, and English, and has already got admitted to a local university, so she is taking the exam to just graduate from high school.

"My friends and I initially planned to attend the second phase, but we have no idea when the pandemic will be contained. If we stay at home and see others take the exam, we will be stressed out," she said.

Many other students agree also want to take the exam as soon as possible after months of learning and revisions.

This year, part of the preparations include wearing masks and face shields, getting their temperatures checked and washing their hands frequently. They also need to test negative for the novel coronavirus. They will not be allowed to sit for the exam if they have not tested negative.

Across the city, around 1,200 students are Covid-19 patients themselves or those who have come into close contact with other infected people and living in locked-down areas, so they cannot attend the first phase of the national exam.

This morning, Hoa took her daughter to the exam venue earlier than normal, so "she can go straight to the test room without waiting or coming into close contact with anyone."

She has also prepared new masks, face shields, and alcohol pads for her daughter to use in the afternoon and tomorrow, worrying "the virus can linger on her pens, glasses and water bottle."

"I want my daughter and her friends to be safe, that’s all. The kids want to get this exam over with, and their parents want to get over this anxiety."

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