More students return to school as virus concerns lingerSchool is back in session for 2.37 million more students, including kindergartners, who resumed in-person classes Wednesday amid continued concerns over an uptick in new coronavirus cases.
Elementary students in first and second grade, students in their third year of middle school and high school juniors also started in-person classes, joining high school seniors who had already returned to school last week.
But youngsters nationwide braved the coronavirus pandemic clad in face masks and backpacks, lined up 1 meter apart to enter the school gates and meet their peers and teachers for the first time this semester.
Teachers, also masked and wearing latex gloves, greeted the kids with hand sanitizer and temperature checks. Some schools have installed plastic partitions on desks, while some seated students in every other desk or at least a meter apart. Others took an all-of-the-above approach.
Sunae Elementary School in Seongnam, Gyeonggi, welcomed back first and second graders 87 days later than expected. Students had their temperatures checked as soon as they passed through a bright pink balloon arch installed in front of the school.
“My child kept saying she wanted to go to school, and I have a lump in my throat because she finally can," said Park Jeong-won, the mother of a first grader at the school. "If the young population had more precaution, it could have happened more quickly, but it is regrettable that they did not take Covid-19 more seriously.”
She was referring to the coronavirus cases linked to young people partying at Itaewon clubs in early May, which eventually led to new clusters of infections and another delay in a return to school.
The new school year would have kicked off on March 2, but amid the coronavirus outbreak, classes were postponed multiple times. In an unprecedented beginning to the semester, students started classes online last month. The new semester began remotely in a phased manner in April with a curriculum blending interactive videoconference-style classes with prerecorded online lessons.
But students, parents and teachers, while overcoming technical glitches, faced the limitations of online lessons and the void left by a lack of physical classroom engagement.
Korea eased its official social distancing campaign on May 6, and quarantine authorities announced students would be able to head back to their campuses in a phased manner this month. But the Itaewon cluster set back the schedule for the three batches of students by one week each.
A total of 2.81 million, or 47 percent of all students, are now back at school. The third and final batch of students will resume school next week on June 8. If the remaining grades start school on June 8, as scheduled, all 4.4 million Korean students will be back in the classroom for the first time since the coronavirus outbreak.
It is unclear how consistently everyday quarantine measures recommended by health authorities can be adhered to — especially once all students return to school, where they will inevitably be exposed to more densely crowded groups of people.
There was particular concern over the return of the youngest students as authorities reported 40 new cases Wednesday, largely in Seoul and its metropolitan area, the highest number in 49 days. Several recent cases have included high school students and even a kindergartner, showing that the young are also vulnerable to the virus.
This included 111 schools and kindergartens in Seoul. A cluster of cases linked to a logistics center in Bucheon, Gyeonggi, also led to the postponement of 181 schools opening in that city.
The Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education said that the delays in the capital were due to concerns raised by parents over Covid-19 cases in their neighborhoods. Parents contacted district offices with requests to delay the reopenings, which were forwarded to the Seoul education office.
A high school senior in Gandong District was confirmed Covid-19 positive Wednesday, according to local education authorities, the first high school senior case in Seoul.
“It is not possible to provide sufficient education to students through remote classes alone," Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae said Wednesday.
During a briefing of the Central Disaster Management Headquarters Tuesday, Yoo addressed concerns about reopening school as new Covid-19 cases continue to emerge.
“We are very well aware of the many worries," she said. “If we do not reopen physical classes amid our current Covid-19 management system, Korea may not be able to reopen school at all this year or will have to only conduct remote classes. Quarantine authorities have determined that the current situation can be managed and contained under our current health care system.”
Park Hyun-ji, a teacher at the school, said Wednesday morning, “I am so happy to see my students and hope to just get through the day okay. I understand the worries of the parents, so we are making thorough preparations, even at break time and lunch time.”
BY SARAH KIM, NAM YOON-SEO [firstname.lastname@example.org]
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