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(2nd LD) Seoul postpones reopening schools following spike in club infections

National 18:02 May 11, 2020

(ATTN: UPDATES with quote, details in paras 4-5, 16-18)
By Lee Minji

SEOUL, May 11 (Yonhap) -- South Korea on Monday announced plans to reopen schools a week later than scheduled after dozens of infections coming from clubs in the city's multicultural neighborhood of Itaewon triggered concerns over a bigger outbreak.

"The education ministry, through consultation with health authorities, postponed school reopening for high school seniors to guarantee the safety of students. The reopening for other grades will also be postponed by a week," Vice Education Minister Park Baeg-beom said in a press briefing.

Under the revised schedule, high school seniors will return to school on May 20, followed by younger students who will return to school in steps concluding on June 8, according to the education ministry.

This photo shows a high school classroom in the eastern Seoul ward of Seongdong on May 11, 2020. (Yonhap)

This photo shows a high school classroom in the eastern Seoul ward of Seongdong on May 11, 2020. (Yonhap)

Park also urged school staff to "help protect the health of students they love" by immediately getting virus checks if they visited affected facilities between April 24 and May 6.

While the ministry currently does not have plans to carry out mandatory screenings for all teachers and school staff due to privacy and administrative issues, he said authorities will strictly deal with those who lie about their visits.

The announcement comes just two days before high school seniors, who are currently taking online classes, were set to return to classrooms.

Schools here normally start the new school year in March, but the schedule has been postponed several times due to the coronavirus. Schools instead resumed classes online in April for the first time in the country's 70-year history of education.

The government announced plans last week to reopen schools in steps starting Wednesday in line with its relaxed social distancing measures that went into effect on May 6.

Situations quickly changed after a 29-year-old who visited clubs and bars in Itaewon between May 1-2 tested positive for the contagious virus.

More than 80 cases, including those who went clubbing as well as their families and acquaintances, have since been reported across the country, putting people on alert over chances of a second wave of infection.

More than 160,000 people had signed online petitions asking the government to reschedule the school opening for all graders.

"Even if schools are well prepared with quarantine measures and have contingency scenarios in place, I believe it is impossible to prevent additional infections if there are patients," said one petition launcher who claimed to be a high school senior, demanding the government to reschedule the plan.

Education officials, such as the city's education chief Cho Hee-yeon, also called for the government to review the schedule.

Health authorities disinfect a cafeteria at a high school in the southeastern Seoul ward of Songpa on May 11, 2020. (Yonhap)

Health authorities disinfect a cafeteria at a high school in the southeastern Seoul ward of Songpa on May 11, 2020. (Yonhap)

"Our children should not (stand on) the frontline of quarantine but should be protected at the last line of defense," Cho Hee-yeon wrote in a May 11 Facebook post.

"In that sense, if the current trend of concerns over a second wave of COVID-19 continues, (I) believe there is a need to review the school reopening schedule."

Some parents welcomed the announcement.

"I was looking forward to my son returning to school, but then the Itaewon case broke out and we don't know how many more infections will be reported," a mother of a high school sophomore told Yonhap.

"I think the first semester is already disrupted. In this situation, I think it's better to postpone it by a week rather than starting early (despite the risks) and ruining the whole year," she said.

On Sunday, Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae said the government will carefully review the case.

"I understand that many are concerned over the Itaewon club infections that occurred just a few days before high school seniors return to school ... Our priority on student safety remains unchanged. We are closely monitoring all risks and will make a prudent decision, leaving many possibilities open," she wrote in a Facebook post.


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