Schools finally reopen Wednesday for high school seniors after a spate of delays due to safety concerns over the novel coronavirus.
The planned school reopening for high school third graders will proceed as scheduled, 79 days after the original semester start day of March 2, the education ministry said. But it will proceed in a limited fashion: Classes will be shortened and no extracurricular activities will be allowed.
Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae said during a briefing Tuesday that classes will be divided into smaller groups to make each class as sparse as possible.
She also called on schools to closely follow a response manual in case of a potential outbreak.
"I understand that this is not an easy path we are on, but we have to go through this once, as it is uncertain when the COVID-19 pandemic might end," she said.
"The ministry and relevant education offices will try our best and respond swiftly to whatever comes along."
She asked students, parents and teachers to follow the seven principles in the manual: check health conditions every day; stay home from school when feeling sick; wipe desks every morning; open windows for ventilation; wear masks except for at lunch time; wash hands for 30 seconds and inform school nurses immediately when feeling sick.
The ministry postponed the reopening of schools five times, as parents and school officials had misgivings about preparedness for the COVID-19 pandemic. Sporadic coronavirus outbreaks added to the anxiety already high amid monthslong social distancing.
South Korean schoolchildren have been attending online classes at home since April 9.
The ministry originally planned for a phased school reopening starting from last Wednesday, but it was postponed yet again by a week amid a cluster of infections emerging in nightclubs in Itaewon, a multicultural neighborhood in Seoul.
Forging ahead with the reopening now, despite concerns, shows the ministry's willingness to regain a sense of normalcy, as nobody knows when the pandemic will end and there is social consensus that schools cannot be closed indefinitely.
For high school seniors, in-person classes are important in the run-up to the national university entrance exam slated for November. In the case of households where the parents are both working, school reopening is also a pressing matter.
Against this backdrop, the ministry said it would stick to its phased reopening plan for lower grades.
For high school second graders, schools are scheduled to reopen on May 27, and the phased reopening is set to finish on June 8.
To make schools safer, measures have been put in place, such as alternating school days for different grades. Also, local educational offices can apply different school schedules depending on their respective safety and quarantine conditions.
In the southern port city of Busan, senior students at high and middle schools are required to attend school every day. The other students will alternate between online classes and in-person classes.
Also small schools nationwide with fewer than 60 students are permitted to open Wednesday. In the sparsely populated Gangwon Province, there are 170 schools, including 46 elementary schools, that are subject to the change.
The southeastern city of Daegu, the country's former epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreaks, has taken a more cautious approach. It allowed students with underlying health issues or other difficulties to stay home from school.
Concerns remain, however, among parents and students alike, over possible infections at school and children spreading the virus in their communities.
A petition has been filed on the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae website asking that school reopening be put on hold, with more than 234,000 petitioners showing support.
Kim Min-jae, a high school senior from Daegu, said "I don't understand why we should go to school at all at a time when everyone is on edge and has to comply with all the stringent regulations."
Another student, Lee Ji-woo, who is also from the city, worried about the effect even one infection case would have on schools.
"If that happens, there will be more difficulties in preparing for the (university) entrance exam," she said.
Education offices have left room for last minute changes.
"If the coronavirus crisis deepens, we will surely review school reopening for high schoolers," Cho Hee-yeon, the superintendent of the Seoul Education Office, said in a briefing Monday, adding the university exam could be delayed by a month in case of an emergency. (Yonhap)