Let colleges go back to normal
The author is the dean of Seoul National University College of Natural Sciences.
A university campus is a place to study, teach and research. The freshmen of 2020 rarely set their foot on their campuses. The situation may not differ this year. Lectures take place in classrooms, as well as in labs and workshops. But much of the education had to be carried out online last year after the Covid-19 outbreak. Students relied on the unprecedented system in which an assistant demonstrated a lab experiment and enrolled students merely wrote down the results and discuss them to write up their reports. Lab and workshop courses not only teach students how to experiment, but students must experience the experiments directly to learn from trials and errors. However, online learning cannot achieve the goals of laboratory sciences.
An increasing number of universities feel the need to open campuses to their students. Seoul National University plans to employ rapid molecular testing of students on a regular basis on top of its usual quarantine measures so that science and engineering departments could hold lab courses. Molecular tests are better than normal quarantine measures as they are more sensitive than an antigen diagnosis — and can proceed faster than the typical PCR (polymerase chain reaction) technology-based testing, which requires minimum 24 hours to get results. Since it only requires a saliva sample, the discomfort from nose swabbing can be lessened. The test is being frequently used at universities in countries where daily Covid-19 cases are still at four-digit numbers. There is no reason why it should not be employed in Korea.
Some raise safety issues over the rapid molecular testing. But that’s because it is confused with the antigen test. Concerns about the spread in universities also come from underestimation of the university system and administration. Some still question the legitimacy of the rapid molecular testing. Still, universities cannot go on being locked out. They cannot afford to neglect studies to comply with the broader social distancing rules.
Even if the untested attempts on top of strict quarantine actions do not generate the desired results, there is not much to lose. Simply put, it is absurd to argue it is too risky for students. Saliva testing does not harm the body, and virus awareness won’t be lessened just because tests become more routine. Even upon being tested negative, one should not let down their guard as virus can infect another. If the new attempt succeeds, the return would be enormous. A person tested negative can go on with the peace in mind since he or she feels safe with others. A lab can be normalized with graduate students on standby, and undergraduate students will be able to carry on with their lab and classroom courses.
If the practice is spread to elementary and middle and high schools across the country, everyday lives in Korea could go back to normal faster along with the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines. A path will never appear if no one goes down it. A new road is paved when someone explores it. We must usher the way into a new normal in Korea.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.