A high-school student undergoes a temperature test at a school in Seoul last week. Photo: AFP

– Defying a still-problematic cluster of Covid-19 cases linked to clubs in Seoul’s nightlife district of Itaewon, South Korea is planning to send more children back to school on Wednesday, while also making mask-wearing mandatory on all public transport.

South Korea, which has been widely praised, first for its extensive testing and later for its aggressive contact tracing, had registered 11,205 Covid-19 and suffered 267 dead as of Monday, according to the Korean Center for Disease Control and Prevention, or KCDC.

High-school seniors returned to school last week, and despite some hiccups – 66 schools in the port city of Incheon were closed on opening day when two students tested positive, and other students had to be sent home from the southeastern city of Daegu – classes have continued elsewhere.

Temperature tests are undertaken at school entrances. Inside, social distancing is enforced in classrooms, eating areas and in washroom facilities. Students are also required to follow careful floor plans to reduce interactions with other classes.  

The second, expanded phase of school reopening is expected to get underway this Wednesday.

Second-year high school students, middle-school seniors, the two lowest grade students of elementary school and kindergarten students are expected to return to classes. 

However, due to the need for distancing guidelines, classes for the above students may only be taught at 50% capacity.

“We will make sure that academic management plans such as bi-weekly and bi-daily school systems are applied,” Education Minister Yoo Eun-hye said Sunday at a briefing. 

Under the proposed system, classes can be cut in half, with students attending school on a one-week on, one-week off, or a one-day on, one-day off, basis. However, it will not be mandatory and will be left to the discretion of individual schools whether to apply the bi-daily or bi-weekly system.

But even as South Korea eases its relaxed social distancing guidelines – the country mandated no lockdowns, even at the height of the pandemic – and Koreans return to a semblance of normality, new anti-virus regulations are being introduced.  

Though voluntary mask-wearing in public remains the norm – Asia Times estimates more than 95% of those out and about in public in central Seoul wear masks – as of Tuesday, masks will be made mandatory on buses and in taxies.

The new steps follow mandatory mask-wearing on subways. Passengers without masks are not permitted to board trains.

Moreover, starting from Wednesday, masks will be mandatory on all flights.

Even so, one shadow still hangs over the country. There was national consternation early this month after a man who had visited a series of nightclubs in Itaewon on the night of May 1-2 tested positive. A cluster of related infections sprung up nationwide.

Although the number of new cases has dropped to about 20 for the last three days and was only 16 on Monday, 237 cases have so far been linked to the Itaewon cluster. The country has tested 82,000 people associated with the clubbers who visited the district.