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

About 1.35 million elementary and middle school children returned to classes across South Korea on Monday, in the fourth and final phase of a school reopening plan which started on May 20 with high-school seniors.

Monday’s return to school means all 5.95 million of the nation’s schoolchildren are now back in classes after the spring semester, which was scheduled to start in March, but had been postponed due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The government has stuck to its phased school opening plan despite fears among many students and parents, and has empowered local school authorities with the option to close down schools indefinitely if there are risks.

Even so, classes are not at 100% capacity.

Only one-third to two-thirds of pupils are actually attending classes daily, as face-to-face classes have had to be supplemented with remote classes to enable classrooms to socially distance children’s desks.

Temperature checks are applied at school gates and inside and movement management protocols have also been emplaced, to ensure different classes are kept apart on the campuses common spaces, such as playgrounds and dining areas.

Overall, the approach appears to have paid off.

According to data released by the Education Ministry on Friday,  only a handful of infections have been reported at schools – six students and four officials – since the reopening started. On Friday, 514 schools – 2.5% of the country’s 20,902 – were closed as precautionary measures applied by local education authorities.

Fits and starts

The government – which undertook a highly effective anti-Covid 19 campaign that did not necessitate any lockdowns even at the height of the pandemic – eased most social distancing restrictions in the first week of May, replacing them with a light regimen it has branded “everyday life quarantine.”

But even though South Korea has flattened its curve, the virus has not been entirely conquered.

According to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the country added 38 new cases as of midday Monday, for a total of 11,814 total infections. Monday’s caseload was slightly lower than the numbers registered over the weekend: 57 on Sunday and 52 on Saturday.

So far, in a nation of 51 million, 273 have died from Covid-19.

While it is rare to see citizens without masks – even in fitness centers – Seoul has very clearly come back to life. Public transport is as jam-packed at peak hours as it was pre-pandemic, and downtown shops, restaurants, cafes and bars are seeing full houses.

But clusters continue to emerge. Hundreds have been infected from a cluster at nightclubs in Seoul’s Itaewon district, and at a distribution center owned by e-commerce giant Coupang in a satellite city of Seoul. And dozens have been infected from small churches in the greater Seoul area, and most recently, from a table tennis gym.

“We urge residents of the metropolitan area to cancel or delay unnecessary gatherings,” a health official said in Monday’s daily televised Covid-19 briefing. The official also reiterated a message that has been aired on numerous, previous occasions: that the coming week will be critical for Korea’s struggle against the pandemic.