By Woo Jae-yeon
SEOUL, June 8 (Yonhap) -- More South Korean pupils will return to classes on Monday in the final phase of the government's reopening plan, amid growing anxiety over a second wave of new coronavirus infections in Seoul and adjacent cities.
About 1.35 million more students -- in the first grade of middle school and the fifth and sixth grades of elementary school -- will be back in the classroom after more than three months, according to the education ministry. School were set to begin in March but were set back by the coronavirus pandemic.
This will bring the total number of students invited back in the four phases to 5.95 million.
But only one-third or two-thirds of them will be actually attending classes with schools set to mix schedules for in-person classes and remote learning due to limited space for keeping a distance among students.
South Korea began reopening schools on May 20, weeks after the country switched its social distancing campaign to what it calls an "everyday life quarantine" aimed at helping the people slowly return to life under eased distancing rules.
But cluster infections linked to nightclubs, a distribution center and religious gatherings in the greater Seoul area have put the scheme in jeopardy. Also among the most recently identified clusters in Seoul were a health product retailer specializing in door-to-door sales for mostly elderly consumers and a table tennis club.
The last phase of the school reopening comes after the daily number of the country's new COVID-19 cases stayed above the 50 level for the second day in a row Sunday, a standard mentioned by the government for maintaining the "everyday life quarantine" campaign.
The country added 57 new cases, the most in nine days, bringing the total caseload to 11,776. Among the new patients, 52 were from the capital area where nearly half of the country's total population of 52 million live.
Fortunately, however, schools seem to be less affected by COVID-19 than expected.
Data from the Education Ministry released Friday showed that only a handful of infections have been reported at schools -- six students and four school officials -- since schools began to reopen.
The ministry said none of them contracted the virus at school. They either found out they had been infected with the virus only after coming to school, or they showed COVID-19 symptoms at school and subsequently tested positive.
The bigger concern seems to come from outside of school boundaries, according to state data.
While schools shut down for nearly three months to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus, the country's private educational institutes, such as cram schools, or "hagwon" in Korean, largely stayed open despite the government's repeated warnings against it.
According to the ministry, 78 COVID-19 patients have been confirmed at 42 private institutes since February. Some of them were found to have lax quarantine measures in place, putting young students and teachers there at risk.
That the country continues to see small infection clusters in the capital area is also raising a red flag for the potential spread at schools.
To prevent an outbreak at schools, the ministry has allowed each school to run a different -- sometimes rather complex -- schedule designed to maintain social distancing.
They have implemented staggered lunches, adjustments to student attendance, split sessions, reduced class time and a mix of online and offline classes.
As of 10 a.m. Friday, 514 schools, or 2.5 percent of the country's 20,902, closed as a precautionary measure. The figure was 838 on May 28, a day after schools reopened for more than 2.3 million pupils in the second phase of reopening.
On Sunday, a senior student of a high school in Seoul tested positive for the virus after visiting Lotte World Adventure, an amusement park in the city. The school decided to shut down until Wednesday as a precaution and to conduct tests on 150 people, including classmates and teachers, who have had contact with the student.
Oh Kyung-hee, a mother of two girls in Seoul, said her oldest daughter will be on a one-week-on, two-weeks-off schedule, while her younger one will go to school once a week.
Her 13-year-old eldest daughter is a first-year middle school student, and the younger, 12, a sixth grader in elementary school. They are among the year groups, alongside fifth graders at elementary school, that belong to the fourth phase of reopening.
Asked if it is worth taking the trouble and feeling anxious about her daughter going to school once a week, she said, "I think it is still very important for them to meet friends and teachers in person and to feel connected to them and solidarity."
"Staying at home all day and watching online classes sometimes feel like just killing time for them," she said, adding, "Schools are safer than hagwon. They are less crowded, more spacious, and teachers and school officials stay highly alert over the danger posed by the virus."
The government recognizes parental concerns over safety in hagwon and has moved to tighten its grip.
It plans to revise a relevant law, based on which the education ministry can punish a private academy that fails to abide by strict quarantine measures with a fine or a forcible business closure.
It is also mulling introducing quick response (QR) code-based entry logs there to allow easy tracing of potential COVID-19 patients. It has already been running the pilot program at risky venues, including karaoke facilities, bars and churches.
"There will come a time when kids can go to school five days a week," Oh said, "if everyone tries their best to stay vigilant."
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