By Woo Jae-yeon
(ATTN: ADDS more details in paras 3-4, 6, last 5 paras, photos)
SEOUL, Sept. 4 (Yonhap) -- The Ministry of Education said on Friday that schools in Seoul and its surrounding cities will remain online-only until Sept. 20, in accordance with the government's decision to extend stricter social distancing rules in the area.
The measure will apply to all kindergartens, elementary, middle and high schools in the metropolitan area -- Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi Province. But high school seniors are not subject to the policy in order to prepare for the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT), the yearly national university entrance exam slated for Dec. 3.
The measure came as the government decided to extend the 2.5-tier social distancing restrictions in the area by another week, limiting operations of restaurants, bakeries, franchise coffee chains, indoor sports facilities and cram schools as a precautionary measure to fight off the coronavirus outbreak.
Some 65,000 cram schools with more than 10 students and 671 vocational training schools in the area should offer virtual classes until Sept. 13.
South Korea's health authorities run a three-tier social distancing system, with Level Three being the toughest, under which most business and social activities shut down, except for essential businesses like hospitals and grocery stores.
Schools in other parts of the country are required to continue to offer a mix of in-person and remote classes until Sept. 20, with attendance capped at one-third in elementary and middle schools and two-thirds in high schools.
The ministry's extended ban on in-person classes reflected a sense of crisis and urgency amid public anxiety that schools remain vulnerable amid rising community infections and unknown transmissions, especially in the capital area.
"Since mid-August when the ministry preemptively ordered schools to go online and limited classroom crowding, virus cases among students, teachers and faculty members have slowly decreased," Vice Education Minister Park Baek-beom said during a briefing Friday.
"But we still need to enforce precautionary measures and remain vigilant amid persistent transmissions," he added.
A record number of 8,252 schools halted in-person classes nationwide on Friday to protect students and slow down the spread of the virus.
The country carefully instituted a phased reopening of schools, starting May 20, as new cases slowed down. Since then, 450 students and 103 faculty members and teachers have tested positive for the virus, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).
Yoon's outreach to Southeast Asia keeps China in the loop
Allies' defense chiefs highlight watertight alliance based on full extended deterrence against N. Korean threats
(News Focus) Police under fire for lax response to emergency calls hours before Itaewon crush
Police under fire for lax response to emergency calls hours before Itaewon crush
Role of administrative authorities questioned in Itaewon disaster