Thousands of senior pupils return for crucial college entrance exams Thousands of students returned to classes in Beijing yesterday for the first time since April 24, when public schools were closed at the height of the city's Sars outbreak. The first to return were senior secondary school students who are preparing to take college entrance exams. Lower grades are to return in coming days, while some schools will stay closed for longer, holding classes with the help of the internet. A total of 1.7 million students were affected, many of whom have spent the past month cooped up in apartments. Schools told many not to see classmates in order to avoid possibly spreading the virus. City officials said 39 students had contracted Sars up to the first week of May. The returning students - who have 15 days to prepare for the exams - were greeted by new outdoor washbasins, the smell of disinfectant and temperature checks. Of the mainland's 26 new cases yesterday, 15 were in Beijing. Two patients died and 81 were released from hospitals in the capital, the Ministry of Health reported. Beijing's total caseload is 2,456 with 158 deaths; the mainland has reported 5,271 cases with 300 deaths. At Beijing's No4 Senior Secondary School almost none of the 150 returning students were wearing face masks. During the lunch hour, most of them vanished into the libraries after their meals. A red and white banner in the playground read: 'Resist Sars, prepare for the entrance exam.' Students said they were happy to escape from the computer lessons and teachers' phone calls that dominated their weeks at home. Lessons and homework assignments appeared daily on the school websites, and students could e-mail or telephone their teachers with questions. But it was not the same, said returning student Wang Rui. 'Studying at home isn't as good, always having to e-mail something,' she said. 'It was hard to change from the face-to-face contact.' The school's 150 teachers worked as many hours as they normally do in class. 'We've all had our work influenced a lot,' said vice-principal Liu Changming. 'Students and teachers had to get used to using the internet. The younger teachers handled it well, but some of the older ones hadn't used computers that often.' Students took breaks to disinfect rooms, measure their temperatures twice a day and clean the soles of their shoes.