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 has managed Covid-19 without resorting to strict lockdowns, but as elsewhere, the pandemic has caused chaos and stress fractures in the educational sector.

Most of the spring semester was written off as the country battled the first wave of infections. Subsequently, online classes were mandated at schools nationwide starting from early April and children gradually returned to normal classes in May.

However, consistency has been spotty.

As clusters broke out in various areas of the country, multiple schools returned to online classes. Due to social distancing requirements, many schools could only accommodate half their usual number of students on a daily basis, necessitating both on- and offline classes running simultaneously. 

The situation has created huge challenges for teachers and administrators as well as stress and uncertainties for students and their parents.  

The fall semester was set to resume when the country faced a new wave of infections, largely in the greater Seoul area, home to more than half the national population, which resulted in two weeks of aggressive social distancing in Seoul.

Those measures were lifted at midnight on September 13.

And it is not only schools. There is discontent in universities, too, over fees, facility closures, and poor online teaching methods and systems.

A range of issues are bubbling away. Students and teachers at universities nationwide are dissatisfied and there have been demands both for better online teaching and tuition refunds.

A mother and her daughter on their way to an elementary school in Seoul on August 25, 2020. Photo: AFP/STR/Yonhap

But the greatest stresses affect parents and students who aspire to enter university this year. There are serious concerns ahead of December 3, the day the all-important college entrance exam is due to take place for university hopefuls nationwide.

Campus discontent

Since the pandemic started, tertiary education institutes have been mainly conducting online classes for students, except for those courses that require hands-on teaching, such as drama and physical education. Meanwhile, many universities have closed physical facilities.

There is no overall policy. Most universities have said they will conduct face-to-face and online classes while checking the situation of the coronavirus from the fall semester.

Kim Hye-bin, 22, a student at Ewha University, told Asia Times of her dissatisfaction with recorded, online lectures.

“In my case, all the classes were recorded, so it was good to listen to them at the time I wanted to take them without going to school, but since it was not a lecture I listened to in person, I couldn’t ask the professor if I had some questions,” Kim said. 

Some classes are delivered via video-conferencing, while others are pre-recorded lectures. Kim complained that she has to pay tuition despite being unable to use school facilities.

“I think it would cost about four million won in tuition for the semester and facility fees would be a high percentage of the tuition, but we couldn’t use any of the facilities as schools closed all the reading rooms and libraries,” she said. 

Kim’s school refunded 5% of their students’ tuition last semester, but has not announced how it will deal with tuition for this semester as Ewha, a private university, has the authority to set its own tuition fees.

Seoul has debated whether to support tuition fees during the Covid-19 crisis. But the issue has not been tabled in the National Assembly due to budget limitations.

While students have complained during taking online classes, faculty members also have issues. This is particularly the case for classes such as physical education, drama and dance, which require physical interaction, as well as technical, engineering and science classes that demand lab experimentation.

Scholarships and grants

Some students have had technical issues with online classes and have questioned the universities’ decision on reducing the number of scholarships and grants. 

Lee Sa-hoon, a senior at the JoongBu University in Goyang, west of Seoul, told Asia Times that the online system broke down so he could not mark his attendance after taking a class.  Lee suggested universities should reconsider the amount of not only tuition, but also pay for its faculty and staff members. 

“In the case of our school, the school had to refund about 100,000 won to our students,” Lee said. That is minimal. According to the Ministry of Education and the Korean Council for University Education, the average annual tuition fee for universities was about 6.7 million won ($5,776) last year.

“Our school has cut the number of student scholarships and grants, but I wonder why the salaries of professors who conduct non-face-to-face classes remain the same,” Lee asked.

Lecturers are far from happy. Noh Yoon-jeong, a part-time lecturer of airline services and tourism at a university in Seoul, told Asia Times that the most difficult issue was practical learning. 

“From speech training to customer response skills, it was a class that had to be done in practice but I had to do it online,” Noh said.

And the fear of infection continues to loom.

Students wearing facemasks amid concerns over the Covid-19 undergo a temperature check from city education officials as they arrive at Kyungbock High School in Seoul on May 20, 2020. Photo: AFP/ Ed Jones

“Classrooms are dense, so there is a high risk of infection,” she said. “The fact that most students go to school using public transportation instead of their own cars is also something that cannot be ignored.”

December ‘D-Day’ looms

But if university students are having problems, school pupils seeking to enter university face even greater stress. Looming at the end of the year is a critical right of passage in South Korean national life which is the university entrance exam, known as suneung or KSAT, the Korea Scholastic Aptitude Test. 

A popular saying states: “The effect of proper education at an early age is 16 times greater than after becoming an adult.” As a result, exam preparation in many family homes becomes hugely stressful for the prestige, or otherwise, of a South Korean’s college education, which is critical for his or her professional and social future.

“Tiger moms” require high-school seniors to take extra tuition pre-school and post-school and study all weekends. This situation has created a nationwide industry of cram schools, funded by ambitious parents eager to give their children the best possible opportunities.  

It comes at a cost. According to the National Statistical Office in 2019, the average monthly cost of private education per child was 321,000 won ($273), up 10.4% from 2018. However, that average camouflages the vast amounts, in the tens of thousands of dollars, many upper and middle-class parents spend on private education for children hoping to enter elite colleges. 

And of course, payments are higher for high school-grade children than others.

This year, the regular stresses of the pre-exam period are exacerbated due to disruptions in teaching and daily life caused by the pandemic, and related uncertainties.

The KSAT was originally set for November 19, but the Education Ministry has pushed it back to December 3. It said it will not consider delaying the exam date any further, or canceling it for the year.

Social backlash

This could be risky as there could, feasibly, be a huge social backlash if students’ grades’ suffer this year due to the educational disruptions. In the United Kingdom, the sub-par 2020 national results in the British equivalent to KSAT – A levels – have become a huge black eye for the government.

Teachers say the Education Ministry must come up with realistic solutions ahead of the crucial exam.

“Teachers suggest reducing the number of students per class to expand face-to-face classes as much as possible,” said Jeong Hyun-jin, a high school teacher in Seoul. “Even amid the Covid-19 outbreak, some schools with fewer than 20 students per class were operating normally.”

Jeong gave the example of Italy, which added tens of thousands of teachers and school buildings for safely, saying: “Innovative policies should be introduced to suit this disaster situation.” 

While KSAT results are the critical component of most children’s university entrance requirements, there are alternatives. For example, interviews are also used by some colleges to select freshmen. A number of universities in Seoul have said they will conduct non-face-to-face interviews and are making formats for them. 

Depending on the severity of the coronavirus, universities can flexibly revise their own schedules. 

“There is no big problem in terms of the educational curriculum,” said Lim Sung-ho, a college admission expert, in an interview with the local press. “But the fact that the KSAT and other necessary tests are delayed, or that there will be a change in the schedule, create great anxiety for students.”

Park Jeong-lim, a mother with children who will be taking the KSAT this year, told Asia Times that she feels sorry for children who need to take the most important test of their lives amid a health crisis that has no precedent in living memory.

“It is a pity that students should manage their school grades and prepare for the KSAT while responding to the unprecedented pandemic,” she said.