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Virus forces schools to go virtual, but many are still unprepared

Schools to start offering online classes April 9, college admission schedules delayed


South Korea said Tuesday it will begin a new semester for the country’s elementary, middle and high schools online starting April 9, as the government fights to stem the novel coronavirus spread.

Students could start going to schools as early as end-April, taking turns by their grades, classes and at different time tables to ensure safe distance among students.

“Taking into consideration infection cases and school situations, the government is reviewing an option of running online classes together with offline ones,” Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae told a press briefing.

The new academic year, which had been scheduled to open on April 6, will begin first for middle and high school students in their third and final year on April 9, with online classes.

Online learning will begin on April 16 for first and second graders at middle and high schools, and elementary school students in the fourth to sixth grades. The rest -- the first to third graders at elementary schools -- will start to receive remote learning starting April 20.

The closure of kindergartens will be extended until certain conditions are met.

The move comes as Korea grapples with a growing number of imported cases from abroad and small clusters of infections, although the country has seen a slowdown in new cases from the peak of 909 cases reported on Feb. 29.

A survey by local pollster Realmeter showed that 72 percent of the respondents said that it would be “inappropriate” for students to go back to schools on April 6 as scheduled.

This year’s school year was originally scheduled to begin March 2 before the date was pushed back three times amid concerns that crowded classrooms might turn into new clusters of infections and further transmit the virus to at-risk groups in local communities.

This marks the first time that the country will begin a new semester in April and online.

To narrow a study gap arising from accessibility to technology, the government is to provide students in low-income families with smart devices and internet connections starting this week.

Out of some 290,000 students from households considered as earning low income, 170,000 students were without smart devices, according to a survey on 67 percent of the schools nationwide by the ministry.

Currently, there are an estimated 230,000 smart devices ready for use at schools nationwide and 50,000 devices owned by the ministry, according to the ministry. Some 13 billion won will be spent in building remote learning infrastructure.

Amid growing confusion over the shift to online learning in the education sector, the ministry said that guidelines on online learning -- from which online platforms to use to how to assess students’ performance -- had been distributed to schools earlier in the day.

This year’s college entrance exam, which had been set for Nov. 19, was delayed by two weeks to Dec. 3, which the ministry said was an “inevitable decision” to give students more time to prepare for the College Scholastic Aptitude Test, called “suneung” here.

The country reported 125 new coronavirus cases on Tuesday, bringing the total infections to 9,786. The death toll stood at 162, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Some 627 people under the age of 20 -- 112 people aged up to 9 and 515 aged 10-19 -- had tested positive for COVID-19 here as of Tuesday, according to the KCDC. None has died of the virus.

The number of students at elementary, middle and high schools is estimated at 5.4 million as of last year -- number of teachers is 497,000.