(ATTN: UPDATES with more info in 11th para)
SEOUL, May 26 (Yonhap) -- South Korea is on track for its second phase of school reopening Wednesday, bringing back more than 2 million students to their schools nationwide amid the new coronavirus pandemic.
School reopening is considered one of the most important steps in the government's "everyday life quarantine" scheme, which was introduced on May 6. The scheme is designed to help people learn to live with the virus and resume normal life amid relaxed social distancing.
Under the government's phased school reopening plan, schools are scheduled to resume in-person classes for the two lowest grades of elementary school, kindergarten students, middle school seniors and second-year high school students.
The estimated number of affected students amounts to 2.37 million.
About 440,000 high school seniors returned to school last week after more than two months of delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The resumption of in-person classes, however, has faced hurdles.
The latest came Tuesday when a teacher at an elementary school in Bucheon, south of Seoul, tested positive for COVID-19, though details are still sketchy.
On Monday, a 6-year-old kindergarten boy was confirmed to have contracted the virus from his art teacher at Young Rembrandts, a private art school in Magok of Gangseo on the south side of the Han River.
The teacher, who tested positive Sunday, had taught 35 students at the institute until Friday and had contact with three other teachers there.
Last week, dozens of schools in Incheon and Daegu were also closed following several infections involving high school students.
A total of 451 schools and kindergartens across the country, including 15 in Seoul, 251 in Bucheon and 185 in North Gyeongsang Province, had rescheduled their reopenings to later dates, according to the ministry, citing concerns about the spread of the virus.
The second phase of school reopening raised more concerns than the first, particularly because it involves younger children who find it more difficult to comply with quarantine and social distancing rules.
To ease parents' anxiety, the Ministry of Education increased the number of permissible absent days so that students can stay at home without worrying about school attendance.
Also, schools have more leeway over setting up schedules to minimize classroom crowding, such as alternating school days for different classes. High school seniors go to school every day to prepare for the national university entrance exam slated for November.
By grade, high school classrooms will run at two-thirds of their full attendance, while the figure is one-third for middle and elementary schools.
Schools in areas with more infections are strongly advised not to fill classrooms with more than two-thirds of students.
The ministry also offers staffing and logistics assistance to schools to help run after-school day care programs smoothly for working parents.
To monitor and tackle potential outbreaks at schools, the ministry is in close coordination with the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) and provincial education offices.
The government is also expected to unveil a set of revised quarantine and disinfection guidelines Wednesday in time for the second phase of the reopening.
"There are considerable difficulties (for students and teachers) to wear masks all the time at schools," Yoon Tae-ho, a senior health official, said during a regular coronavirus briefing at the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters on Monday.
The guidelines are said to include details on, for example, "how to wear masks on a playground and at recess," according to Yoon, which will go into effect immediately.
The government reassures the public that the second phase will go off without a major hitch.
"I understand there are many concerns, but based on the school reopening situation for high school seniors, we can see things have been going relatively well," Son Young-rae, another health official, told a press briefing Tuesday.
"Now is the time for the reopening of schools and the running of safety and quarantine measures to be balanced harmoniously," he said, calling for the public's support for creating a safe learning environment for the country's youth.
The ministry said about 90 percent of the students who are scheduled to attend schools Wednesday finished self health checkups on a mobile phone application. Students are required to regularly monitor their health conditions using the app for one week before going to schools.
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