COVID-19: Schools in South Korea Re-opens as precautionary measures are being enforced

Hundreds of thousands of South Korean students have returned to school today as their country prepares for a new normal amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

Students lined up for temperature checks and were given sanitisers to wash their hands as they entered school premises while teachers greeted them with smiles and occasional elbow bumps.

But for 66 schools in Incheon, Seoul, the excitement was short lived after students were evacuated and sent home soon after the reopening when two pupils were found to have contracted the virus. 

High school students wearing face masks prepare for classes, with plastic covers placed on desks to prevent infection in Daejeon, South Korea, May 20, 2020
High school students wearing face masks prepare for classes, with plastic covers placed on desks to prevent infection in Daejeon, South Korea, May 20, 2020
A teacher and high school students wearing protective face masks exchange greetings in a classroom as a school reopens in Cheju, South Korea, May 20, 2020
A teacher and high school students wearing protective face masks exchange greetings in a classroom as a school reopens in Cheju, South Korea, May 20, 2020

The two students did not attend school today, but authorities decided to temporarily close all schools in their neighbourhood as students there may have come in contact with the infected students earlier, a spokesman at the Incheon Metropolitan City Office of Education said.

The episode illustrates the challenge of reopening schools while at the same time seeking to prevent transmission of the virus. 

Inside the school buildings, students are asked to wipe their desks and sit apart according to social distancing guidelines, with some classes setting up partitions between desks. 

Students wearing facemasks amid concerns over coronavirus undergo a temperature check from city education officials as they arrive at Kyungbock High School in Seoul on May 20, 2020
Students wearing facemasks amid concerns over coronavirus undergo a temperature check from city education officials as they arrive at Kyungbock High School in Seoul on May 20, 2020
Cho Hee-yeon, Seoul Metropolitan office of education superintendent checks the temperature of student while back to school at Kyungbock high school on May 20, 2020 in Seoul
Cho Hee-yeon, Seoul Metropolitan office of education superintendent checks the temperature of student while back to school at Kyungbock high school on May 20, 2020 in Seoul
Senior students line up to get their body temperatures checked at the Kyungbock High School in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, May 20
Senior students line up to get their body temperatures checked at the Kyungbock High School in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, May 20
A teacher (right) welcomes a student back to school with an elbow bump at Kyungbock high school on May 20, 2020 in Seoul, South Korea
A teacher (right) welcomes a student back to school with an elbow bump at Kyungbock high school on May 20, 2020 in Seoul, South Korea

Education minister Yoo Eun-hae said: ‘Concerns over small infection clusters still remain and no one can predict what kind of situation will arise at schools,’ 

The education ministry began operating a 24-hour emergency situation room this week, Yoo said, adding that any schools that report fresh infections will be shut immediately.

While final-year students are required to come to school every day, younger pupils will shift between online and offline classes to ensure school buildings are not overcrowded. 

A students gets his temperature checked with a thermal imaging camera as a high school reopens in Chungju, South Korea, May 20, 2020
A students gets his temperature checked with a thermal imaging camera as a high school reopens in Chungju, South Korea, May 20, 2020
Students sit behind protective screens as they eat their lunch as a preventative measure against COVID-19 at a high school in Daejeon on May 20, 2020
Students sit behind protective screens as they eat their lunch as a preventative measure against COVID-19 at a high school in Daejeon on May 20, 2020

Oh Chang-hwa, student president of Kyungbock High School in Seoul said: ‘It’s really exciting to meet my friends and teachers face to face, but we have to strictly follow the disinfection guidelines.

Students eat lunch at tables equipped with plastic barriers in Doan High School in Daejeon, South Korea, 20 May 2020
Students eat lunch at tables equipped with plastic barriers in Doan High School in Daejeon, South Korea, 20 May 2020

‘I am very worried but it’s still nice to see them again.’

South Korea endured one of the worst early outbreaks of the virus — at one point the second-worst hit nation after mainland China — prompting officials to delay the reopening of schools in early March.

But it appears to have brought its outbreak under control thanks to an extensive ‘trace, test and treat’ programme.

Around 440,000 final-year students, who will in December take the university entrance exam that is crucial in the education-obsessed country, are the first to return to schools, with other years following in stages over the next several weeks. 

South Korean health authorities reported 32 new cases over a 24-hour period, the first time the daily jump has been above 30 in more than a week.  

Lower-level students were set to return to school in phased steps by June 8.

South Korea’s new school year was supposed to start in early March, but it was delayed several times due to worries about the spread of the coronavirus.

Pupils have their temperatures checked at an elementary school in Muan, South Jeolla, South Korea, 20 May 2020
Pupils have their temperatures checked at an elementary school in Muan, South Jeolla, South Korea, 20 May 2020
Students form a long line to have their temperatures checked before entering class at Jeonmin High School in Daejeon, South Korea, 20 May 2020
Students form a long line to have their temperatures checked before entering class at Jeonmin High School in Daejeon, South Korea, 20 May 2020
A student walks past a thermal scanner to have his temperature checked before entering class at Geumcheon High School in Cheongju, South Korea, 20 May 2020
A student walks past a thermal scanner to have his temperature checked before entering class at Geumcheon High School in Cheongju, South Korea, 20 May 2020
Senior students wait for a class to begin with plastic shields placed on their desks at Jeonmin High School in Daejeon, South Korea, Wednesday, May 20
Senior students wait for a class to begin with plastic shields placed on their desks at Jeonmin High School in Daejeon, South Korea, Wednesday, May 20
Senior students wait for a class to begin with plastic shields placed on their desks at Jeonmin High School in Daejeon, South Korea, Wednesday, May 20, 2020
Senior students wait for a class to begin with plastic shields placed on their desks at Jeonmin High School in Daejeon, South Korea, Wednesday, May 20, 2020
High school students wearing protective face masks maintain social distancing as they stand in a line to have their body temperature checked at a high school, in Ulsan, South Korea, May 20
High school students wearing protective face masks maintain social distancing as they stand in a line to have their body temperature checked at a high school, in Ulsan, South Korea, May 20
Senior students attend a class at Gimhae High School in Gimhae, South Korea, Wednesday, May 20, 2020
Senior students attend a class at Gimhae High School in Gimhae, South Korea, Wednesday, May 20, 2020

About 5.4 million students in South Korea have been subsequently taking classes online.

At Seoul’s Kyungbock High School, Cho Hee-yeon, the education superintendent in the capital, used a digital ear thermometer to check students’ temperatures at the main gate while another official placed liquid sanitiser on the hands of those students.

Signs that read ‘No outsiders are allowed to enter the school premises’ were set up. 

Cho Hee-yeon, Seoul’s top education superintendent, said: ‘I am here to see students returning to school while praying that there won’t be any coronavirus patients among our students in 2,200 schools.’ 

 South Korea relaxed much of its social distancing rules in early May. But it quickly saw a small but sudden spike in new infections linked to nightclubs in Seoul.

Those latest outbreaks had been on a downward trend until Tuesday.  

FRANCE: Schoolchildren wearing protective mouth masks and face shields attend a course in a classroom at Claude Debussy college in Angers, western France, on May 18, 2020
FRANCE: Schoolchildren wearing protective mouth masks and face shields attend a course in a classroom at Claude Debussy college in Angers, western France, on May 18, 2020
PORTUGAL: A teacher wears a protective visor and the mandatory mask during class in the Agrupamento de Escolas Frei Gonçalo de Azevedo on May 18, 2020 in Cascais
PORTUGAL: A teacher wears a protective visor and the mandatory mask during class in the Agrupamento de Escolas Frei Gonçalo de Azevedo on May 18, 2020 in Cascais
GERMANY: Pupils apply social distancing measures in class at Benzenberg secondary school in Duesseldorf, Germany, 19 May 2020
GERMANY: Pupils apply social distancing measures in class at Benzenberg secondary school in Duesseldorf, Germany, 19 May 2020

Across the world thousands of students have been making a cautious return to schools with countries such as Germany, Canada, Australia, China, Switzerland, Denmark, Greece, the Czech Republic, Cyprus and Israel allowing schools to reopen with measures including splitting classes in half and teaching them at different times of the day to keep pupils safe.

Pupils in Finland, who returned on Thursday, were pictured giving each-other air hugs as a greeting while students in the Netherlands were separated by plastic dividers as they returned to their desks.

That stands in stark contrast to the UK which has yet to produce a plan for getting the majority of students back to classes during this school year – putting the country alongside Spain and Italy, where only a few children are expected to return to classes before the summer holiday. 

The UK Government wants a phased reopening from June 1, with Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 pupils going back first as a row rumbles on about whether it is safe with Education Gavin Williamson insisting getting children back to school on that date is vital for their development and prospects so teachers should ‘do their duty’. 

NETHERLANDS: A teacher standing inside her taped-off safe zone speaks to pupils who sit at their desks behind plastic shields after elementary schools reopened
NETHERLANDS: A teacher standing inside her taped-off safe zone speaks to pupils who sit at their desks behind plastic shields after elementary schools reopened
FINLAND: A teacher signals a warm welcome as children arrive to start the primary school in Helsinki, Finland, after schools were reopened on Thursday
FINLAND: A teacher signals a warm welcome as children arrive to start the primary school in Helsinki, Finland, after schools were reopened on Thursday
FINLAND: Pupils keep the social distances before entering Eestinkallio primary school, as it re-opens after lockdown measures were eased across Finland on Thursday
FINLAND: Pupils keep the social distances before entering Eestinkallio primary school, as it re-opens after lockdown measures were eased across Finland on Thursday
FINLAND: Students - some of whom are wearing gloves to prevent against coronavirus - are shown how to properly socially distance from one-another
FINLAND: Students – some of whom are wearing gloves to prevent against coronavirus – are shown how to properly socially distance from one-another

Scientists are divided on the risks of sending children back to school – while they largely escape coronavirus symptoms they are known to be carriers of the disease and there are fears they will infect adults around them.

But restarting classes will be key to getting the global economy back up and running since parents who are forced to keep their offspring at home will be unable to return to their jobs.

There are also fears it will cause lasting economic damage for a ‘lost generation’ whose learning will be irreparably damaged by being kept away from their teachers, leading to a skills shortage in the future.

Staff Writer

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