High school seniors at a school in Daejon, South Korea, sit behind plastic screens as a Covid-19 defensive measure earlier this year. Photo: AFP

South Korea’s cautious school re-opening was off to a bumpy start on Wednesday when students at 66 schools in Incheon, the port city west of Seoul, were sent home only three hours after arriving after two students tested positive.

The Education Ministry has not decided when Incheon students can return to school, as it contract traces the two infected students.

Classes re-started on Wednesday across South Korea for the first time since December 2019 – or at least some classes, with only high school seniors returning. After the high school seniors, other grades will return to classes in a phased process in the weeks ahead.

Online classes have been conducted since mid-April, but with mixed results and multiple complaints.

Wednesday’s school re-opening was later than expected. A cluster of cases that had exploded in the nightlife district of Itaewon in early May postponed the opening by a week.

“We cannot avoid going to school or blindly delaying the opening of schools,” Education Minister Yoo Eun-hye told a meeting with the superintendents of education in 17 major districts. He cited the special circumstances facing high school students.

There has been concern among many high school seniors and their parents over an extended school closure due to the College Scholastic Ability Test, or CSAT, the all-important university entrance exam. Scheduled for November, the CSAT has been pushed back to December.

Even so, there was already a backlash – even before the Incheon debacle.

As of late Tuesday, about 236,000 people signed a petition on the presidential website, requesting a delay in the reopening of schools due to the possibility of the much-feared “second wave” of the pandemic.

Special measures

It is not school as usual.

The Ministry of Education started operating an emergency service system for 24 hours a day from Wednesday and thermal imaging cameras were set up outside school entrances.

Inside, teachers were required to measure students’ temperatures with thermometers before students entered classes. Any with temperatures north of 37.5 degrees Celsius or who had symptoms such as headaches and sore throats were prevented from entering. 

These procedures, however, are not entirely new. Similar precautions were taken during the MERS outbreak in 2015 and the swine flu in 2009.

Schools are recommended by their students and parents to change the layout of the classrooms to enable social distancing. However, since classrooms have limited space, teachers are required to divide their classes into two. Half the students will take a class conducted by a teacher, while the rest watch via a video monitor.

Student movements are strictly controlled when entering and leaving classes and moving around the school. Children have to use designated water purifiers and toilets.

Jeong Hyun-jin, a high school teacher in Seoul, told Asia Times that schools would need more staff. “Teachers cannot do both educational activities and quarantining and they must ensure that they can focus on their educational activities,” Jeong said.

Divided opinion

Opinions are divided among the affected children.

“It is great news to go to school because of the limitations of online classes, compared to face-to-face classes,” said Jang Eun-ki, a senior at Wonjong High School in Bucheon, southwest of Seoul. 

As the date of the most important exam in any Koreans’ life, the CSAT, approaches, many students have been concerned at the limitations of online classes. But others have argued that it is too early to return to school.

Kim Jong-won, a senior at Gwangyang Baekun High School, in Gwangyang, southwest of Seoul, told Asia Times that the majority of students at the school think it is too risky.

“We have to keep wearing masks when we are in school, and some will definitely say it is uncomfortable,” Kim said. “Also, we cannot freely turn on the air-conditioners.”

Jang raised the possibility of cluster outbreaks in schools.

“Students are required to go to school at a designated time set by different classes from school in the morning. I think it is too early to go to school even if students are prevented from contacting as much as possible and allowed to use designated toilets and water purifiers.”

Another cluster

While early concerns about the spread of the Itaewon cluster have largely subsided – it appears to have been controlled thanks to Korea’s best-of-breed contact tracing and testing regimens – another cluster has appeared in Seoul. 

On Tuesday, four nurses working at Samsung Medical Center, a major hospital in Seoul, tested positive. The hospital has partially closed its operating theater facilities and is conducting an emergency quarantine. 

Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon urged ultra-special care, given that many patients with severe and underlying conditions reside in the wards.

A major testing program is underway and an 18-member rapid-response team is investigating the movements, contacts and routes of the nurses, according to Park.