(ATTN: UPDATES tenses, photos; ADDS comments in paras 17-20)
By Woo Jae-yeon
SEOUL, June 3 (Yonhap) -- More South Korean students returned to classrooms on Wednesday as part of the government's phased reopening plan, but worries linger over the continued spread of the new coronavirus.
The reopening comes at a time when the country is wrestling with a spike in infections traced to small Protestant churches and cram schools in Seoul and its adjacent areas despite a slowdown in cases tied to bigger clusters, such as a nightlife district and a logistics center.
The country reported 49 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday. Of them, 48 are from the great Seoul area, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).
School is back in session for about 1.78 million more students -- in the first grade of high school, second grade of middle school and third and fourth grades of elementary school. This brought to 4.59 million the total number of students who have returned to school in three phases. The fourth and last phase of school resumption is set for Monday.
But they do not all go to school simultaneously. Each school is allowed to run a different schedule to ease classroom crowding. They implement staggered lunches, shifts of student attendance, split sessions, reduced class time and a mix of online and offline classes.
The South Korean government started reopening schools on May 20. Under the plan, 440,000 high school seniors began in-person classes, followed by 2.37 million students in other year groups, including kindergartners.
According to top educational officials, the reopening is inevitable at a time when a great deal of uncertainty over COVID-19 is holding back normal life activities, including those of students.
They believe staying at home and learning through virtual classes is insufficient for the social and mental development of young Koreans.
But infection cases have been reported at schools, cram schools and business establishments frequently visited by students.
Cases are abundant. Last week, a second-year elementary school boy and two middle school pupils in Seoul tested positive for COVID-19, causing scores of schools to close. A high school senior in the southern port city of Busan also tested positive. A second-year elementary school student in Anyang, a suburb of Seoul, was confirmed on Sunday to have the virus.
So far, 20 teenage patients of COVID-19 were traced to a teacher at a cram school in the port city of Incheon.
On Monday, an official at a Seoul elementary school tested positive, leading to the closure of the school and its kindergarten.
The operation of cram schools -- which have mostly stayed open despite government warnings -- is particularly worrisome.
According to the ministry, a total of seven confirmed cases involving students were reported from cram schools from February to May. The figure rose to 20 in May. Since February, more than 30 cases involving teachers or officials at cram schools have been reported.
To address the concerns, the government inspected the safety conditions of private education institutes in the capital area on Monday and Tuesday.
But the Education Ministry maintains its position that the coronavirus is under control, with the government's stringent quarantine protocols and testing and tracing capability.
"We understand that there are worries about the reopening of schools amid clusters of infections emerging in the capital area," Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said during a COVID-19 response meeting Wednesday.
"But the current difficult situation should not stand in children's way for their futures and hopes," he said, "Which explains why we opened schools in cloth tents in the middle of the (Korean) war."
He also emphasized that there hasn't been any transmission case reported at schools.
"In May, we had 50 student infection cases, but none of them contracted the virus at school," he said, adding, "It shows that every party involved puts priority on the prevention of virus spread at schools."
Last week, it toughened measures to minimize classroom crowding in Seoul and the surrounding area.
Elementary and middle schools are required to cap the number of students at one-third of the total student body and high schools at two-thirds.
It also strongly advised businesses frequented by teenagers to remain closed until June 14. If they choose to remain open, they have to make sure that patrons fill out entry logs, wear masks and maintain at least a 1-meter distance from one another.
Some parents have misgivings about sending their kids to school.
According to the KCDC, the number of infection cases of people aged 10-19 is 661, or 5.7 percent of the country's total caseload of 11,590. Children younger than 10 years old account for 1.37 percent with 159 cases.
Although the figure is not deemed large, it should not be overlooked because young people with mild symptoms can silently carry the virus and infect other family members who are vulnerable.
On a now-closed petition posted on the presidential Cheong Wae Dae, more than 255,000 people asked the government to delay the reopening of schools. In another ongoing petition posted by a teacher, more than 164,000 people have supported the delay.
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