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(2nd LD) More students return to school amid new surge in coronavirus cases

All News 11:42 May 27, 2020

(ATTN: CHANGES headline, lead, photos; UPDATES with more info in paras 1-5, 8-10, 15-18)
By Woo Jae-yeon

SEOUL, May 27 (Yonhap) -- More than 2 million more South Korean students returned to school Wednesday as the country saw a resurgence of confirmed novel coronavirus cases.

The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) confirmed a total of 40 new cases, highest in 49 days, in the morning. Among them, 36 cases were reported in densely-populated Seoul and its surrounding areas.

The rise in the number of cases is largely attributed to local transmissions from a club cluster infection that started in the nightlife district of Itaewon in Seoul in early May.

Amid growing concerns over the spread of COVID-19, some 450 schools and kindergartens across the country postponed their reopenings.

In the face of the virus's ongoing spread, the reopening of schools is considered crucial to test the government's "everyday life quarantine" scheme. The scheme, introduced May 6, 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.

With Wednesday's reopenings, a total of 2.81 million, or 47 percent, of all students, including those in kindergartens, started attending in-person classes.

Teachers instruct students to maintain social distancing in front of Cheongun Middle School in Seoul on May 27, 2020. South Korea implemented the second phase of school reopenings the same day, affecting the two lowest grades of elementary school, kindergarten students, middle school seniors and second-year high school students. (Yonhap)

The resumption comes as health authorities are on alert over local transmissions in connection with the Itaewon cluster, including new outbreaks at a logistics center in Bucheon, west of Seoul.

As of Tuesday at noon, 255 cases were confirmed to be related to the Itaewon cluster, and at least 36 cases are traced to e-commerce operator Coupang's logistics center.

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.

"I am worried about young children. High shool students can control themselves but for little ones, I am not convinced," Lee Yoon-hee, a working mother with two children, said.

Her oldest daughter, who is in her first year at a Seoul high school, went to school in the morning.

"I also worry about flexible school schedules. It makes life harder for parents like myself, because I have to adjust to any change that might arise," she said, referring to a potential sudden school closure or one-day-on, one-day-off schedules.

A total of 450 schools and kindergartens across the country had rescheduled their reopenings to later dates and more schools are expected to follow suit. With this, the number of students who returned to school Wednesday is 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.

Students maintain distance from one another after arriving at Cheongun Elementary School in Seoul on May 27, 2020, amid the coronavirus pandemic.

By grade, high school classrooms 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 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.

A child has his temperature checked at a kindergarten in Sejong, central South Korea, on May 27, 2020, amid the coronavirus pandemic.


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