A child undergoes a temperature test before entering a school in Seoul. As seasonal heat rises, so are concerns. Photo: AFP

After last month’s phased re-opening of South Korean schools that had been closed for the spring semester due to Covid-19, 49 schools nationwide were forced to close again on Tuesday due to infections among students or teachers.

But while the government had stuck to its policy of keeping schools open, teachers were complaining that the guidelines they had were inadequate and felt that too much responsibility for the students’ safety was being placed on them.

Meanwhile, with the hottest summer in decades bearing down and questions rising over whether summer vacation should be canceled, fears are also rising over mask use in the sultry Korean heat.

Fears unabated

South Korea has won praise worldwide for its “no lockdown” approach to the pandemic. Instead, its approach relies on public discipline – wearing masks and socially distancing – combined with widespread testing and high-tech contact tracing to keep infections in check.

Compared with many Western nations, it has suffered minimally from Covid-19. Korea has reported a total of 12,484 cases and a death toll of 281, in a nation of 51 million.

But fears have not been allayed and new measures are constantly being applied. Masks have recently been made mandatory on all public transport and a smartphone QR code reporting system is pending for those who visit high-risk locations such as bars and churches.  

South Korea’s vast capital is particularly jittery as a series of clusters – in a nightlife zone, among churches, at an out-of-town distribution center and at a table tennis hall – continue to pop up.

On Monday, the Korea Center for Diseases Control and Prevention stated that the capital area was now suffering the dreaded “second wave.”

School reaction

As confirmed cases rise in and around Seoul, two capital-area pupils tested positive, according to the Education Ministry and Seoul Education Office.

One was a 6th-grade girl attending Oksu Elementary School, who contracted the virus from her grandmother. After she went to school on Wednesday, the school asked all the 6th-grade students and teachers there to test for the virus at a temporary center set up in the playground.  

 The school has now transited back to online schooling, but will resume face-to-face classes on Friday if no new cases linked to the infected student are confirmed. 

At another Seoul school, Sangmyung Middle School, an 8th-grade male student tested positive after contracting the virus from his grandfather. The school temporarily closed as all 8th-grade students and teachers took tests.

The government has made clear that it will not consider re-closing all schools. However, it has recommended all schools – except high schools, which have more rigid academic and exam requirements – divide their classes so only one-third of students attend each day. The remaining two-thirds of students attend online classes.

This measure minimizes the number of students attending and so obviates possible mass infections.

Temperature tests are taken at school gates and there are rigorous social distancing guidelines inside, such as arrows on floors of public areas to guide the foot traffic flow and staggered dining hall timings, so that different classes do not cross each others’ paths.

In schools where cases are reported, the government has given the green light for temporary closures.

Yet more guidelines appeared last weekend, when KCDC Director Jeong Eun-kyeong recommended restricting students from visiting places with high infection rates, such as karaoke rooms, internet cafes and gyms. 

At the chalk face, there is criticism of central government policy. 

Teachers fearful

After spending one month back at school, teachers say the education ministry should not give frontline staff discretion over anti-pandemic measures. Instead, they want very specific instructions that will prevent confusion or hesitation when teachers have to deal with the unexpected.

“The ministry and the education offices have provided some guidelines to schools, but most of those are related to disinfecting rules, not academic affairs,” Jeong Hyun-jin, a high school teacher in Seoul, told Asia Times.

Jeong added that the ministry should not pass responsibility to teachers in this unprecedented era.

The ministry said it had assigned more than 40,000 quarantine experts to schools nationwide. In fact, Jeong said the process was not centralized – the ministry gave individual schools a budget and let them hire unqualified personnel.

Jeong was not impressed.

“The people who schools hired, after teachers raised their voices due to their overwhelming tasks, are not quarantine experts and there is nothing they can do to prevent students from getting infected,” Jeong said. “The ministry was very irresponsible on this.”

Teachers also reminded the government that students’ safety, and quarantine decisions regarding whether or not to re-close schools, were principles agreed on before last month’s school reopening.

“To prevent teachers from facing dilemmas while coping with situations in schools, the government should remember the principles we all agreed to,” Jeong said.

Cho Seok-hyun, a policy director at the Korea Teachers and Education Workers Union in Busan, told local news media: “It is difficult to teach in school and we are overwhelmed by pressures and responsibilities.”

Feeling the heat

A teacher conducting a science class in a school on Jeju Island died after collapsing from what was believed to be heat exhaustion while wearing a mask. The teacher reportedly suffered from an underlying medical condition – making the tragedy look like a preventable accident. 

Teachers are recommended by the KCDC to wear a type of dentist’s mask to breathe easily while teaching and the KCDC has advised people to take off their masks when outside now that the weather is getting warmer. 

Making this doubly problematic are two issues.

Firstly, while no decision has yet been taken, the education ministry has raised the question of whether schools should cancel their summer vacation, due to the semester time already lost earlier in the year.

Secondly, summer 2020 is shaping up as the hottest summer in decades. The already searing temperatures are leading to laxness – and some are worried.

Kim Jong-won, a senior at Gwangyang Baekun High School, in Gwangyang, southwest of Seoul, told Asia Times that students have started taking off masks in school as the temperature soars. 

“Teachers do not force us to wear a mask,” Kim said. “And we do not even keep social distancing when we are heading to the cafeteria.”