Digital textbooks, drafty windowsI was dubious when a middle school teacher told me her students were struggling in a very cold classroom. I couldn’t believe it was possible in a country with a per capita income of more than $20,000 and a population of more than 50 million. I have been doing research and reporting for the “School Upgrade” series, so I visited five middle and high schools.
The teacher was right. In the corridor of a high school, the thermometer indicated minus 2 degrees Celsius (28.4 Fahrenheit). Most teachers and students were wearing heavy outerwear. Cold wind blew right through the old window frames. As I approached the window side, the temperature dropped drastically. It was minus 6.5 degrees Celsius, far lower than the recommended indoor temperature during winter of 18 to 20 degrees Celsius.
It was not that they were not providing heat. But classrooms were still freezing because the windows did not close properly and frames were in disrepair.
Principals seemed as though they couldn’t care less. A middle school principal said children are overly sensitive to cold because they stay too warm at home. When asked if the school checks the temperature regularly, he responded that there is no such requirement in the school operating guidelines. The Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education and the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology officials said they were not aware of the problem. When I asked why there was no guideline for indoor temperatures at schools, they responded with a question of their own: What was the temperature in the classroom?
Regrettably, there is no sign of improvement. Presidential candidates are competing to offer populist education policies, such as free child care for children 5 years old and younger and free high school education. Yet they don’t know, and are not even willing to find out about, the reality in classrooms. They make grand promises to introduce digital textbooks sometime in the future, but they don’t seem to have thought about drafty windows in classrooms today.
The candidates running for Seoul education superintendent are even more disappointing. They focus on the ideological confrontation between the conservative and the progressive, and none of them has said anything about - much less promising - to renovate outdated school facilities.
As politicians advocate free welfare and education, the budget for school facilities is shrinking. The budget set aside for improving school facilities and the educational environment was halved from 617.9 billion won ($576 million) to 284.9 billion won this year. Next year, the increase in the preschool child care and education budget resulted in no extra budget for window reinforcement or heating and air conditioning system improvements.
I want to ask the presidential and superintendent candidates if any of them has ever set foot in one of our cold classrooms. It is frustrating that they are advocating “free welfare” when the children who will lead the nation in the future are freezing at school. I don’t want to see pictures of students bundled up in blankets, scarves and gloves in foreign newspapers.
* The author is a national news writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Yoo-jeong