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Virus doesn’t stop kids from going to cram schools

Despite school closings, kids in S. Korea still go to after-school tutoring

Busan Office of Education on Friday dispatched a team of officials to disinfect a cram school in the city`s northern district of Dongnae. (Yonhap)
Busan Office of Education on Friday dispatched a team of officials to disinfect a cram school in the city`s northern district of Dongnae. (Yonhap)

The new coronavirus epidemic in South Korea has led to an upheaval in school calendars across the country, with all schools ordered to suspend classes until at least March 23. But for many students here, their educational obligations extend beyond the K-12 curriculum to cram schools known as hagwons.

While the government has urged the private after-school tutoring services to defer classes to join the coronavirus fight, only 36,424 of 86,435 hagwons nationwide remain closed as of Thursday, with many expected to begin classes in the coming week or the next ahead of the postponed spring semester.

One such institute in Yeouido, central Seoul, said Friday that the classes will resume starting Monday, in light of the prolonged pause in program.

“After closing classes for two weeks since Feb. 24 due to the coronavirus outbreak, classes will proceed as normal from Monday,” the hagwon’s director said in a text message sent to the parents. “We respect the government efforts to curb the spread of the disease, and we are committed to taking the right steps to support such efforts.”

As a precaution, the staff will disinfect the classrooms daily, have students wash their hands and wear face masks and get their temperatures checked, he said. Students will be discouraged from mingling, and seated some distance away from one another.

Although the hagwon said the decision to reopen classes was made following requests from “an increasing number of parents,” a parent of a prospective high school freshman said she would rather have the classes be stalled until safety was guaranteed.

“If it’s not safe for kids to go to school, then it’s not safe for them to go to hagwons,” she said. 

Besides, students will be exhausting face masks that they will need to wear at schools, she added. She said her 15-year-old son barely had enough masks to wear for the three-month semester, should the outbreak persist.

Other franchise tutoring services Jongro Academy and Daesung Hagwon are also resuming all in-person class operations next week.

Students in upper grades report being anxious about the academic schedule being pushed back.

“I’m worried about falling behind and not being able to catch up once classes start,” said Kim So-yeon, a high school senior in Dangsan, southern Seoul. “I also wonder if this will affect the college entrance exam in November.”

But infection concerns linger as in Busan, a cluster of infections has been linked to a hagwon in the city’s central district of Busanjin. The city government said last week the hagwon’s two students, a parent of one of the students, teacher and the director tested positive for the virus.

To encourage shutdowns, the Ministry of Education said Friday it would conduct onsite inspections at some of the bigger hagwons.

On Feb. 27, Seoul Superintendent of Education Joe Hee-yeon warned that closing classrooms at schools as well as at hagwons was “not a choice but a must in order to protect public health.” As of last week, only 34.2 percent of the 25,234 tutoring services in the city followed through with the recommended closure.

For some hagwons, closing is not something they can afford.

“As someone who runs a hagwon, I can’t shut the operations altogether for too long considering the rent, teacher payrolls and other bills,” said a director of a hagwon in Mapo, Seoul’s central western district.

“Smaller institutes like ours aren’t equipped with the infrastructure or staff necessary to move the classes online,” she said. “Hagwons -- though in the education sector -- are businesses too and we can’t help but contemplate the costs.”

By Kim Arin (arin@heraldcorp.com)

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