High school seniors across China lined up on Tuesday to sit the gruelling "gaokao" college entrance exam under the shadow of Covid-19.
The class of 2022 are the first to have had all three years of China's high school curriculum disrupted by the pandemic, bouncing between online and offline classes and adapting to frequent Covid tests and sudden closures.
The constant uncertainty has compounded the already intense stress of the three-day gaokao, which can determine a teenager's life path in China's highly competitive academic and job environment.
"These kids haven't had it easy," Jin Lijuan, mother of a gaokao candidate, told AFP outside a high school in Beijing.
Anxious parents offered words of encouragement to their children and took photos outside the school as students shuffled through its gates, some cramming last-minute.
Police officers guided traffic around the campus. Signs near the school asked drivers not to honk.
Tuesday was the first time in weeks that many students had seen their classmates, as the Chinese capital had closed schools and offices to try and eliminate a coronavirus outbreak.
"At the beginning, my kid was very happy since there's no need to go to school," Zhao Dong, whose daughter is sitting the gaokao this year, told AFP.
"But as time went by, looking at her computer for a whole day of class became quite difficult."
Students taking the exam in Beijing this year must wear masks, show proof of a negative virus test from the past 48 hours and pass a temperature check.
Local governments across the country have similar requirements.
Authorities in China are committed to a zero-Covid strategy -- using rapid lockdowns, mass testing and strict travel restrictions to eliminate even the smallest outbreaks.
In Shanghai, where 25 million residents are gradually emerging from two months in lockdown, authorities have delayed the exam by a month.
A record 11.93 million people registered for this year's gaokao, state news agency Xinhua said on Tuesday, with teens in some locked-down neighbourhoods taking the tests in individual hotel rooms.
"This generation of kids entered high school in 2019... so the entire second semester of their first year was done at home," Zhao said.
"They are like an 'epidemic generation'."