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[News Focus] Challenges remain for S. Korea’s 2nd school year under pandemic

Achievement gaps, care void not fully tackled in Education Ministry’s plan for March

Students attend class Thursday at Yongwon Elementary School in Nowon-gu, northeastern Seoul. (Yonhap)
Students attend class Thursday at Yongwon Elementary School in Nowon-gu, northeastern Seoul. (Yonhap)
The government plans to increase the number of in-person classes and roll out measures to address the learning gap between students from different socioeconomic backgrounds, but risks remain.

Armed with virus control plans for expanded in-person classes, budget-backed child care programs and improved digital assets, the education authorities are optimistic as they map out the learning ecosystem for students in the new school year starting in March.

But their upgrades and adjustments continue to fall short of what students and teachers expect ahead of a third semester under the COVID-19 pandemic.

A remote learning system that is said to have been improved, but about which no details have yet been revealed, could still expose students to learning risks. Moreover, the learning gap seems set to widen as much of the student population is not included in the in-person attendance plan.

Greater emphasis on in-person classes also increases virus concerns and health risks, suggesting that much more work is needed if the government is to guarantee safety and reliable services for all groups.


In-person classes still risky

The idea of bringing more kids physically back to school has already met with doubt from health experts, who point out that community-level infections have become more common than before, with clusters accounting for a smaller proportion than they did a few months back.

In a December report, Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency Commissioner Jeong Eun-kyeong endorsed a greater number of in-person school days, saying only 2.4 percent of the 127 children diagnosed with COVID-19 from May to July had been infected in school.

“Virus control measures should be reviewed with the perspective of continuing education rather than cutting physical attendance,” the report said.

Yet experts have expressed concern about the call for more in-person classes, saying the situation is much different than it was in July and there is more danger of students catching the virus while in school.

According to KDCA data, as of Thursday South Korea could not trace the sources of infection for 18.41 percent of all confirmed cases, meaning that people may be spreading the virus without knowing they have it.

Community-level infection risks are greater considering the influx of more transmissible COVID-19 variants from Britain, South Africa and Brazil.


Achievement gap not fully addressed

And as the new plan focuses on in-person attendance for students in the lower grades, achievement gaps apparent among middle and high school students are expected to continue growing.

The Ministry of Education said kindergartners and first and second graders will be allowed to attend classes in person for the new school year starting in March as long as the social distancing rules are no stricter than Level 2.

High school seniors will be obliged to take in-person classes unless virus restrictions are raised to the highest level. The rest of the student population was not included in the plan for the academic year.

The ministry explained that it had prioritized younger students because of the difficulty parents face in arranging child care.

The exclusion of other students, civic groups argue, will inevitably force their families to rely more on private education after school hours -- causing students from families with fewer financial resources to fall behind.

“The ministry focused a lot on younger elementary school students and has no special plans for students in areas with low-income households,” the Practical Education Teachers’ Association, a progressive group representing teachers, said in a statement Thursday.

“We question whether the ministry lacks an overarching vision towards the education sector as a whole in drafting this plan.”


Improved remote learning system needed

In approaching the new school year, parents, teachers and students alike are demanding an improved remote learning system that addresses the growing achievement gap.

In the Thursday briefing, the Education Ministry said it will launch a newer system that enables an improved interactive learning environment and easier management of student attendance and classroom resources.

Teachers are asking the ministry to keep its promises, recalling that it fell short of expectations during the last school year, resulting in technical difficulties and fatigue among teachers and students.

The Korean Federation of Teachers’ Associations also wants the new system to address the workload for teachers, which may be heavier when interactive learning is involved.

The group insists that the ministry listen to teachers’ feedback and minimize increases in in administrative work when carrying out the plan.

“Real-time interactive classes demand much more preparation and cause more fatigue (for teachers) than running in-person classes,” the KFTA said. “The ministry should also pursue measures to remarkably lower the work burden for faculty members.”

The Education Ministry is preparing to unveil the new system in the coming weeks, while making infrastructural investments so that teachers can conduct classes in a remote learning environment. A separate system for teachers to create their own educational content will be ready by August.


Bumpy road ahead for child care

Even though the government is promising more child care workers and classrooms to address the void, it seems possible that the conflict between the government and care workers may continue during the new school year and disrupt after-school care for children.

A coalition of nonregular school workers is fighting the Education Ministry’s plan to make after-school care a community-level project planned and managed by local governments. At the moment, individual schools are responsible for providing after-hours care to students in need.

Care workers fear that the shift could result in increased job insecurity, as regional governments facing budgetary constraints could delegate managerial tasks to private dispatch companies and would most likely choose the lowest bidders.

The coalition has also asked for improved wages and working conditions for child care attendants, saying their livelihoods are being seriously affected by the pandemic. They call on the government to ensure an eight-hour workday and to stabilize wage levels.

While the conflict is not so great now that schools are on winter break, the fight could resume with the start of the new school year. The 13,000-member coalition warned earlier this month that it will wage a full-scale strike if its demands remain unheard.

If that happens, young students, especially those in elementary school with no after-school care programs to attend, could be the losers.

By Ko Jun-tae (ko.juntae@heraldcorp.com)
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