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(LEAD) More students to return to school despite virus risk

National 07:50 May 27, 2020

(ATTN: UPDATES with some schools' decisions to reschedule reopening in paras 2, 11)
By Woo Jae-yeon

SEOUL, May 27 (Yonhap) -- More than 2 million additional South Korean students will return to school Wednesday as parents worry about a recent rise in local transmissions of the new coronavirus from a club cluster infection and unknown sources.

Some 450 schools and kindergartens across the country decided to postpone their reopenings as of Tuesday due to concerns over the spread of COVID-19, according to the education ministry.

The reopening of schools is considered a test for the government's "everyday life quarantine" scheme, which was introduced May 6. The scheme is designed to help people learn to live with the virus and resume normal life amid relaxed social distancing.

The students affected by the second phase of reopening are the two lowest grades of elementary school, kindergarten students, middle school seniors and second-year high school students. The estimated number of students is 2.37 million.

Last week, 440,000 high school seniors returned to school, more than two months behind schedule due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The country's academic year begins in March.

Teachers disinfect toys at Hanil Kindergarten in Suwon, south of Seoul, on May 26, 2020, one day ahead of the reopening of kindergartens nationwide. (Yonhap)

The resumption comes as the health authorities are on alert over local transmissions after a 29-year-old tested positive following visits to nightspots in the central Seoul neighborhood of Itaewon in early May. The case has grown into an infection cluster of 255 as of Tuesday at noon, with recent infections involving acquaintances and family members of Itaewon clubbers.

While the first phase is considered to have gone off without a major problem, there is pervasive fear about potential COVID-19 outbreaks among young students.

There has been a spate of coronavirus infections involving students of various ages.

Earlier this week, a 6-year-old kindergarten boy was infected with the virus from his teacher. In another case, a teacher at an elementary school was found to have tested positive for the virus.

Despite the government's confidence in managing the pandemic, parents and teachers are still worried that young children could struggle to keep quarantine and social distancing rules.

A total of 451 schools and kindergartens across the country -- 15 in Seoul, 251 in Bucheon, west of Seoul, and 185 in North Gyeongsang Province -- had rescheduled their reopenings to later dates and more schools are expected to follow suit. With this, the actual number of students returning to school Wednesday is expected to be lower than 2.37 million.

To calm 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.

A teacher attaches tape on the floor of a corridor to show movement paths for students at Dongho Elementary School in Seoul on May 25, 2020, two days ahead of the reopening of primary schools for first and second graders nationwide. (Yonhap)

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 later in the day, including details on mask wearing at schools.

jaeyeon.woo@yna.co.kr
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