SEOUL - South Korea is extending school closures by an additional week as new COVID-19 infections are on the rise. COVID-19 is the illness caused by the coronavirus.
Students in their third and final year of high school were scheduled to return to classrooms on Wednesday, but the country’s Education Ministry has now pushed back the date to May 20.
Park Baeg-beom, vice minister of education, said during a press briefing on Monday the postponement was meant to “guarantee the safety of students,” according to the Yonhap News Agency.
He said other grade levels will gradually return to schools in the weeks going into June.
The start of the school year, which typically commences in early March, was delayed by several weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic and courses have been taught online since last month.
The rescheduling announced Monday is in response to a new group of infections that appears to be spreading across Seoul and other regions.
The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) said on Monday that at least 86 COVID-19 cases have been traced to a man in his 20s who visited a popular Seoul nightlife district earlier this month. Officials warn that thousands of patrons of several bars and clubs in this area could have been exposed and should get tested.
On Saturday, Seoul’s mayor, Park Won-soon, ordered all of the city’s bars and clubs to close down until further notice and criticized those who did not wear masks while inside these venues, saying their “carelessness” risked the health of others.
Prior to this recent spike, new coronavirus cases in South Korea had been on a steady decline with the number of community transmissions remaining in the single digits for much of the past few weeks.
Last week, Seoul eased social distancing measures that allowed for the planned re-opening of schools and other public facilities, including libraries; but, pressure began to build on the government to again change the start date following the KCDC’s disclosure of the new outbreak.
By the time the Education Ministry announced its decision, more than 15,000 people signed a petition on the presidential Blue House’s web page that called for another delay.
Some high school seniors feel the back and forth over the safety of reopening schools only makes more difficult their efforts to prepare for exams and complete other requirements for entry into a university.
“My distrust of starting school is deepening,” Jung Ujin, 18, wrote in a text message to VOA. “I even think that the opening of school in September, which was considered the worst, would be better. It's meaningless to stay trapped at home in constant anxiety.”
Jung said she and many of her classmates feel they have “fallen behind” due to the school closures and online classes have not been an effective substitute for in-classroom learning.
Education officials had issued various guidelines to schools and students on how to practice proper hygiene and implement social distancing protocols once classes resume.
In messages sent to a student from her school and shown to VOA, authorities notified pupils that their temperature would be checked upon arrival each day, masks were to be worn at all times and during lunch break in the cafeteria, students would be required to sit at a distance and minimize talking to one another. Those who presented symptoms, such as a fever or sore throat, would be sent home.
But, the push to get students back to the classroom now might have been rushed to begin with, suggests a high school teacher, who spoke with VOA on the condition of anonymity because he did not have permission from his employer.
“I think it is dangerous to reopen now,” the 33-year old said. “In light of the recent infection outbreak, students are at risk since many take public transportation to school and come into contact with so many people.”
“Classrooms already have limited space, so we can’t practice social distancing well as it is,” he said.
South Korea experienced a large COVID-19 outbreak in February but is credited with mitigating the spread of the disease, due to rapid testing and technology-based contact tracing.
As of Monday, the total number of coronavirus cases stood at 10,909 with 256 deaths attributed to the disease, according to the KCDC.