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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on May 16)

All News 09:29 May 16, 2020

Alert on school opening
Use Korea's competitive disease control methods to fight second wave

When President Moon Jae-in rallied teachers Friday vowing to "develop remote learning systems and information-communication infrastructure," on social media, he sounded prophetic about a new educational reality for Korea.

Schools are still scheduled to reopen, starting with high school seniors on May 20. But the fear of a second wave of COVID-19 infections among visitors to bars and clubs in Itaewon has prompted more than 200,000 people to endorse a petition on the presidential office's site asking for the reopening of schools to be delayed. The government must now respond.

The education ministry has reiterated that it will open schools for high school seniors. In response to fears of new infections, the ministry said it will strengthen social distancing and everyday disease control rules further for schools and private institutes. As the World Health Organization has warned that the novel coronavirus may never go away and we will have to learn to live with it, the education ministry's plans may well be the best option.

But since a man in his 20s tested positive after visiting bars and clubs in Itaewon on May 6, the number of related infections has risen to more than 150. Another man in his 20s who tested positive in Incheon has infected his students and adults.

These figures are not yet menacing with a view to the Korean quarantine system in mind. However, they do evoke the dread of a repetition of the first mass infections that occurred within the members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, which engulfed Daegu and spread throughout the country from February for two months. Like the church, the nation's 20,000 kindergartens, primary and secondary schools with about 6 million students and 500,000 teachers, are a cauldron for possible mass infections.

Understandably, the academic schedule is particularly pressing for the seniors with the all-important College Scholastic Ability Test on Dec. 3. But the times call for the flexible operation of academic and curricular requirements so that students can learn throughout this academic year even without much physical attendance. The authorities are surely working hard, but we have to ask if there are detailed plans to realistically prevent infection once the schools reopen ― such as how to get the students to wear the masks in hot weather or how schools will respond in the case of an emergency.

There is no easy answer to this for sure. But the safety of schools for students and teachers alike should be the top priority. Surely the erstwhile quarantine practices that Korea has accrued in fighting the first wave have left clues and lessons for the educational and health authorities to learn from.

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