(ATTN: CHANGES headline, lead, photos; UPDATES with more info throughout)
By Kim Han-joo
SEOUL, Nov. 17 (Yonhap) -- More than half a million students sat for the college entrance exam on Thursday, the nation's most important annual academic event that includes an English listening test during which all airplane takeoffs and landings are banned nationwide.
A total of 508,030 high school seniors, graduates and others signed up to take the state-administered College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT), a nine-hour five-session exam, held at some 1,370 test sites across the country.
It is the third CSAT the country has held since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020.
Just like in the two previous years, separate test rooms and test sites have been set aside for students with COVID-19 symptoms and under self-quarantine, respectively. Students under treatment at hospitals will take the exam at their rooms.
The education ministry said Wednesday that a total of 2,317 test-takers have tested positive for the virus over the past six days.
Pandemic rules apply to all exam-takers, as all of them will have their body temperature checked before being let into the exam sites. They are also required to wear masks and sit at desks with plastic dividers.
Students are required to bring their own water and lunch and will also not be allowed to gather and talk during a break.
The annual exam, known as "Suneung" in Korean, is largely considered a life-altering event in the country as it determines not only which university they can go but also often their entire careers.
Not only the students but also their parents often feel that the single-day event impacts their future, prompting the government to make society-wide efforts to help the test-takers.
Public transport was increased to help students get to their test centers in time, while the transport ministry has banned all airplane takeoffs and landings for 40 minutes from 1:05 p.m. to ensure that no noise disturbs the English listening test.
Aircraft in midair should be on standby at altitudes of at least 3 kilometers above ground. These measures led to the adjustment of the schedules for 18 domestic and 59 international flights, according to transport ministry officials.
The country's stock bourse and the foreign exchange market will also open one hour later than usual at 10 a.m.
Just like in two previous years, there was little cheering outside test centers after the government banned cheering from students' peers and urged parents not to wait outside due to concerns over the pandemic.
Many students hugged their family members quietly before walking into their classrooms, and parents, some in tears, turned back without waiting.
"I hope my daughter comes up with the result as she has had a hard time," a 47-year-old mother surnamed Park said. "I think every parent will hope for the best."
There were some test-takers who belatedly arrived at the test sites in police cars.
Students will be notified of the results of the exam on Dec. 9, the ministry said.
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