Students return to school in South Korea amid COVID-19 concerns

Seoul school superintendent Cho Hee-yeon takes the temperature of a student returning to Kyungbock High School in downtown Seoul on Wednesday. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI

Life in South Korea took another step toward a new normal amid the COVID-19 pandemic on Wednesday as high school seniors returned for their first day back to the classroom following a delay of nearly three months.

Some 450,000 students showed up to schools that have been prepared with disease-control measures that include temperature checks, frequent disinfection and distancing in classrooms and cafeterias. The seniors were the first wave of students to come back, with all of South Korea’s 5.5 million elementary, middle and high school students scheduled to return in stages by June 8.

As they entered their schools for the first time after the March 2 start of the school year was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students were greeted by smiling faculty who took their temperatures and sprayed sanitizer on their hands.

“After only studying at home and at the reading room, seeing friends and teachers at school motivates me more to concentrate on my studies,” said Seoul high school senior Lee Yeon-jae.

School resumed with online classes on April 9, but Lee said that the format made it harder to focus on her studies and added to her anxiety about upcoming college entrance exams. The grueling, once-a-year test is widely seen as a pivotal moment in South Korean life and most students spend long hours cramming for it after school.

The Collegiate Scholastic Aptitude Test, also known as Suneung, is usually held in mid-November but it has been pushed back to Dec. 3 this year.

Under the new COVID-19 prevention guidelines, students and teachers are required to wear face masks in school, while desks and cafeteria tables have been equipped with plastic dividers and windows will be opened to ventilate classrooms. Students are prohibited from talking during lunch, and temperatures will be checked regularly via digital thermometers and thermal scanners.

Anyone with a temperature above 99.5 degrees Fahrenheit or displaying other respiratory symptoms will not be permitted to stay at school. If a positive coronavirus test result is returned, the school will be closed and classes will resume online.

Lee said she was still nervous about returning to class.

“Although the school says they will maintain the precautionary measures and social distancing as much as possible, I am worried because there is a high possibility of a new cluster infection if anyone catches coronavirus in the classroom,” she said.

At Kyungbock High School in downtown Seoul, city school superintendent Cho Hee-yeon was on hand Wednesday morning to welcome students back and take their temperatures with a digital thermometer on their way onto the campus.

Cho told reporters that he was “praying that not one confirmed student will come out of the 2,200 schools” in Seoul.

He added that schools were facing a “tense situation, where we are pursuing both study and prevention at the same time.”

South Korea loosened its social distancing guidelines in early May, allowing for increased social and economic activity. Schools were originally scheduled to reopen last week, but that date was pushed back due to a COVID-19 outbreak centered around nightclubs in Seoul.

Health officials said earlier this week that the infection’s spread was under control, but South Korea saw its daily total of new cases jump to 32 on Wednesday. Most of the patients were concentrated in the greater Seoul area, where cases had dropped to single digits in recent days.

In the city of Incheon, which neighbors Seoul, students from 66 high schools were sent home before lunchtime after two students tested positive for COVID-19.

The total number of COVID-19 cases in South Korea reached 11,110 on Wednesday, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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