(ATTN: UPDATES with more info in paras 10-13)
By Woo Jae-yeon
SEOUL, May 28 (Yonhap) -- Wider school reopening for more than 2 million pupils met with more concern than joy, as South Korea reported a new viral cluster in the greater capital area.
Under the government's phased reopening plan, school children and kindergartners returned to their classrooms en mass on Wednesday to begin much-delayed in-person learning. Schools were set to begin in March but were set back by the new coronavirus pandemic.
On the same day, however, more than 60 COVID-19 cases were confirmed at a distribution center in Bucheon, located between the western port city of Incheon and Seoul.
The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) on Thursday confirmed 79 new infection cases, including 69 linked to the center owned by Coupang, the country's leading e-commerce giant.
As of 11 a.m. Thursday, the latest figure released by KCDC shows infection cases connected to the center have risen to 82. And the tally is feared to go up, as thousands of workers and their contacts are being tested for the virus.
The new cluster of infections spooked schools in Bucheon and nearby areas, causing them to further postpone the reopening and resume online classes.
The Incheon education authorities suspended the reopening of 243 schools and kindergartens in the city. All 251 schools in Bucheon were ordered to close, except for high school seniors' classes, earlier this week to limit the spread of the virus.
Nationwide, 838, or 4 percent of the total 20,902 schools, didn't open Thursday, according to the education ministry, up by 277 schools from a day ago. Bucheon closed down the largest number of schools, followed by Gumi in North Gyeongsang Province at 182.
On Wednesday, 2.43 million students went to school, which accounted for about 90 percent of the total students subject to the second phase reopening.
Health Minister Park Neung-hoo said in a briefing Thursday that the government would do its utmost to break the chain of virus transmission in the capital area.
On that front, it issued strong advice for facilities and business establishments frequently used by young students, including cram schools, to close until June 14, while keeping schools open.
"If the government fails to curb the spread in early stages, the virus will spread through communities, which in turn will affect schools and disrupt in-person classes," he said, asking for public cooperation in the fight against the virus "to protect the happiness of students."
Aside from the cluster infection, there has been a flurry of infections involving the country's youth. In Seoul, a high school senior in Gangdong Ward tested positive on Wednesday, leading to the closure of some schools.
In Yeouido, a cram school teacher has tested positive, prompting six area schools and a number of other educational institutes in the same building to close.
Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae said on a radio show Thursday morning that the government was monitoring the cluster infections in Bucheon very seriously, and that the closure of schools in the city was "inevitable" to protect public health.
The choice of whether to reopen is at each school's discretion, the minister said, although the final decision is made in close consultation with provincial education offices and the ministry.
Online forums used by parents were filled with concerned voices over in-person classes and potential health risks for children.
"I am really torn between whether to send my kid back to school today, given the Coupang infections," a user who uses "atatamom" as her ID wrote on the portal site Naver's forum, Baby Love, on Thursday morning.
"I won't send my kid to school today. It is better than feeling anxious," another user "Lovelyn" wrote back.
The country's daily infection figure released by the KCDC marks the highest in 53 days since 81 reported on April 5, and well above the threshold of 50 set by the government as a target for starting the so-called everyday life quarantine scheme in early May.
The reopening of schools is deemed a crucial step towards regaining a semblance of normalcy and running the ambitious scheme successfully.
The education authorities remained adamant that the country would avoid the mistake made by Singapore, which closed its schools again after failing to contain explosive virus spread in the dormitories of migrant workers.
When visiting an elementary school in Seoul on Wednesday, Cho Hee-yeon, the superintendent of the Seoul Education Office, said that while the country was facing an uphill battle, it would overcome any difficulties.
South Korea could "walk on the same path as Singapore by closing down schools" in the worst-case scenario, he said, adding that many European nations have also been struggling after reopening their schools.
But it needed to "trail-blaze a new path" in educating students "by thoroughly implementing quarantine measures and balancing in-person and remote classes, without closing schools," he said.
The first phase of the reopening began last Wednesday for 440,000 high school seniors. The phased reopening will continue until June 8.
The government has put in place meticulous quarantine and isolation protocols in schools, introduced a series of measures to minimize classroom crowding and issued relaxed guidelines on mask use at schools ahead of summer. Also it staffed up for school sanitary practices.
The Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education issued a new guideline on Thursday that kindergartens should shut down for two weeks and offer online classes in case of a confirmed COVID-19 case.
The next reopening of schools is slated for Wednesday.
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