SEOUL - As nearly a half-million South Korean students prepare to take an all-important college entrance examination later this week, health and education officials are stepping up efforts to prevent test sites from becoming coronavirus hotspots.
On Thursday, much of South Korea will quiet down as students in their third and final year of high school complete a test that is widely seen as having an oversized impact on one’s academic, professional and even marital prospects. Officials say that roughly 490,000 people have applied for this year’s one and only College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT), better known in Korean as the suneung.
Like on nearly every previous test day, airplane flight patterns will be diverted away from some 1,300 testing locations nationwide, the country’s stock market will open late and all nearby construction will come to a grinding halt in hopes of eliminating potential distractions. But, unlike in any other year, all students will be wearing masks, plexiglas barriers will be installed between desks and anyone presenting possible COVID-19 symptoms will be quarantined at an alternate testing center.
For most students, who’ve spent much of their academic careers studying for the suneung, the exam day was already a high-stakes challenge. And now in the midst of a pandemic that has disrupted the school year and their attempts to prepare for the exam, the test has become even more anxiety-provoking.
“I was breathless while taking my practice test with a mask on,” said 18-year-old Shin Min-seon, who hopes to score well enough to get into one of South Korea’s top universities and study media. “We’re nervous, we’re going to suffocate while taking the suneung and our scores are going to be affected this year because we have to wear masks.”
South Korean officials are trying to thread the needle between administering the CSAT and protecting the health of test-takers while not causing these students to panic over all the anti-virus precautions.
Health authorities already say the country is in the midst of a “third wave” of coronavirus infections and have elevated social distancing measures, including restricting operating hours and dining policies at restaurants and coffee shops.
On Wednesday, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded 511 new COVID-19 cases, a relatively high number for the country, which has won praise from around the globe for its contact tracing and testing methods, but continues to face sporadic cluster outbreaks.
The CSAT was originally scheduled for mid-November, but because the academic year was postponed by several weeks at the start of the pandemic and classes were temporarily moved online, officials pushed back the date to December 3.
The Ministry of Education has opened 86 remote test facilities for students who are currently in isolation or who show signs of COVID-19 infection. Leading up to this week, officials urged the test-takers to refrain from attending after-school tutoring academies, spending time in online game parlors or meeting with friends in tightly packed karaoke studios.
Inside exam centers, students are being asked to avoid mingling during breaks and to wear warm clothes since windows will be left open for ventilation.
High school underclassmen, who usually gather in the early hours of the morning outside exam sites to cheer on the seniors, have been discouraged from congregating on Thursday and parents of suneung-takers have also been asked to not wait for their children at those locations, according to guidance issued by the government.
In the United States, college entrance test dates for the SAT and ACT have been canceled or rescheduled multiple times this year. But, in South Korea, there was never concern that the suneung would be officially called off.
Because of the importance ascribed to the test as well as the money that many Korean families spend on tutoring for their children, Seoul “had no option” but to allow the test to move forward, said Andrew Eungi Kim, a professor in the Division of International Studies at Korea University.
“If there was an attempt to cancel the test, there would be a demonstration not by the students, but by their mothers,” he said.
In 2019, South Korean families spent $19 billion on private education for their grade school students, according to Statistics Korea.
Kim says in South Korea, when a student earns a university degree, it “carries much more weight” than in many other countries. A high CSAT test result is the entry point into a prestigious school, which leads to promotions in leading conglomerates and in turn increases one’s marriageability, he explains.
Kim says CSAT-takers from affluent families most likely will not be too affected due to this year’s academic complications, but not so for those who come from households that can’t afford the extra-curricular cramming or virtual learning.
“The pandemic has disrupted public education and has effected the middle and lower class much more,” he says.
On the eve of the suneung, test-takers received an apology of sorts from President Moon Jae-in for all the complications during this year’s exam.
“It's hard to prepare for the CSAT itself, and it will be even more difficult and worrisome to take the exam in the coronavirus situation,” he wrote on his social media accounts, which was translated into English by the Yonhap News Agency.
"I feel sorry [as the president]. I'd like to put warm scarves around your necks.”
Juhyun Lee contributed to this report.