Federal education minister Shafqat Mahmood on Tuesday announced that no examinations will take place in the country until June 15, amid a surge in coronavirus cases and deaths.
Addressing a press conference in Islamabad after a special National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC) meeting, he said O and A level exams had been cancelled and would now take place in the October-November cycle. However, A2 exams will keep running for those students who want to appear for the purpose of applying to foreign universities.
"It has been directed strictly that after Monday, more than 50 people will not be in one centre. For that we have requested that schools be made venues," the minister said, adding that law enforcement personnel will be deployed to maintain discipline.
In a tweet, Mahmood said the decision had been taken to address the "health concerns of students and parents".
"All exams cancelled till June 15 and depending on the spread of the disease may even go further," he wrote.
He said Cambridge exams had been postponed till Oct-Nov for all grades, while the only exception was for those A2 students "who have a compulsion to take [the] exam now".
According to the minister, university admissions in Pakistan will be aligned for grade 12 and A2 students who will be taking exams in Oct-Nov. "This is to ensure no one loses a year," he wrote.
The decision comes after widespread calls from students, activists and politicians for the government to cancel the Cambridge exams in view of the third coronavirus wave.
Mahmood during the presser said a rapid increase had been seen in the disease since the last meeting held on the issue at the NCOC on April 18, when it was decided that exams would be held as per schedule.
But because the country is moving in a direction where areas with high infection rates might be placed under a lockdown, he said, it was decided with consensus that "all exams will be cancelled until June 15".
The decision means that the exams of grades 9, 10, 11 and 12 that were due to start at the end of May stand postponed further, Mahmood added.
"We will continue analysing [the situation] and in mid-May or in the third week of May, we will analyse the disease and a decision will be made whether to further postpone exams or allow them to take place. This means that if exams are started after June 15, they could go into July and some part of August as well," he announced.
The minister said the cancelled exams of O, A and AS level would now take place in the October-November cycle, adding that for students who wanted to study in Pakistani universities, the government would ensure that admissions remained open till January so they did not face any problems.
"But despite doing all this, one section of students is left whose year will be wasted if they don't sit the exams [now]," he said, referring to A2 students, which number around 20,000 in total.
"After discussion, it was decided that students in A2 who due to some compulsion cannot postpone their exams beyond September, [...] will be given the facility to take exams according to the datesheet they received, for their facilitation."
Mahmood noted that Cambridge had announced that no extra fees will be charged for students shifting their exams to Oct-Nov, while other concessions would also be applicable.
"This is a difficult time. A lot of parents will be reassured [by the decision] that their children will not go to sit exams at a time when Covid is at a peak," the minister said, emphasising that the decision had been taken in a "collective spirit" in the best interests of students' future.
Speaking alongside him, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Health Dr Faisal Sultan said "strict compliance" of the standard operating procedures (SOPs) would be ensured at venues where A2 students were taking exams.
He said the number of critical Covid-19 patients in the country had surpassed 5,000, the highest since the start of the pandemic. "The third wave of the pandemic is intense and NCOC has taken a lot of steps for strict compliance of restrictions," he added.
Dr Sultan noted that a lockdown was imposed in Mardan yesterday because the positivity rate there was very high, saying: "The intensity of the illness is high and the pressure on the health system is also quite high."
The NCOC meeting was called to discuss what Mahmood termed "poor" SOPs compliance outside Cambridge exam centres as well as the latest reports regarding the spread of the coronavirus in the country.
Over the weekend, students used the hashtag #NCOCcancelexam to dispel the impression that they were making the demand due to being under-prepared, explaining that it was due to the spike in Covid-19 cases in the country.
However, exams went ahead on Monday with several purported videos on social media showing a large number of parents gathered outside exam centres and a large number of children inside examination halls.
A day earlier, Mahmood said that those not comfortable with the current situation could switch to the October/November cycle "without any extra charge" and urged parents and students to peruse Cambridge's policy.
Last week, the Islamabad High Court (IHC), Lahore High Court (LHC), Peshawar High Court (PHC) and Sindh High Court (SHC) had dismissed separate petitions challenging the physical presence of students in O and A levels exams and seeking a switch to school-assessed grades.
The petitions were filed by students in each of the four high courts against the Cambridge Assessment International Education's (CAIE) decision and the government's approval for holding physical exams in Pakistan.