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S. Korea to prioritize expanded in-person classes for middle school students

More in-school days needed to tackle growing achievement gap, education minister says

Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae speaks during a meeting with reporters Monday. (Ministry of Education)
Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae speaks during a meeting with reporters Monday. (Ministry of Education)
South Korea will expand in-person classes and accelerate the vaccination of key school employees to restore educational opportunities lost to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ministry of Education said Monday.

Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae told reporters Monday that the ministry is prioritizing an expanded proportion of in-person classes for middle school students, especially those in Greater Seoul, as the country continues to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

“We have been in talks with regional education offices to expand the proportion of in-person classes once new social distancing rules come into effect,” Yoo said.

“In-person classes for middle schools, especially for those in the capital region, have fallen relatively short, so we are planning to consider that as our foremost priority by closely cooperating with Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi Province.”

As the current five-tier social distancing rules face growing criticism over loopholes in containment efforts, the country is planning to introduce a new four-tier system. But this has been postponed for weeks in consideration of the virus situation.

Yoo said the infection rate among school-age children has stayed lower than in other age groups, with the rate standing close to 10 percent for those aged between 13 and 18.

The minister added that no infection clusters or mass outbreaks had been discovered so far in the new school year, which started this month, even though more students have physically attended schools.

Yoo said there were some schools with attendance rates exceeding 90 percent that still reported no infections.

Starting this month, all kindergartners and first and second graders have been allowed to attend classes in person. For the new school year, the social distancing rules have been no stricter than Level 2 so far.

High school seniors are obliged to take in-person classes unless virus restrictions are raised to the highest level. The rest of the student population has not been included in the plan thus far, as younger students were prioritized due to demand for child care, according to the ministry.

Civic groups have argued that the exclusion of other students will force families to rely more on private education and widen the achievement gap among students from different socioeconomic backgrounds.

“Schools have reported that basic academic knowledge for students has fallen behind compared to previous years, and that suggests that basic scholastic ability could be a serious issue under the changed educational environment,” the minister said.

“We are planning to prepare support measures for schools and their regions after making a diagnosis on the situation by this month’s end.”

In regards to the admission fraud scandal surrounding Cho Min, the daughter of former Justice Minister Cho Kuk, Yoo said the ministry will focus on its role as a supervisor and will not directly interfere with any proceedings unless it becomes necessary.

“Like we did in the past, the Ministry of Education will demand the related school to verify details, examine the results and oversee whether determined measures are sound and fair,” she said.

“Pusan National University has started the inspection, so we will check if there is a role that the ministry should play as it unfolds.”

Days earlier, the university organized an internal inspection committee to look into alleged fraud concerning the admission of Cho Min to its medical school. Cho Min is at the moment working as an intern at Hanil General Hospital after earning her medical license in January.

Chung Kyung-sim, the mother of Cho Min, was sentenced to four years in prison in December for falsifying awards and other documents such as internship certificates by using the seal of the university president in 2012 to support her daughter’s medical school application, from 2013 to 2014.

“We believe it is not appropriate to announce any measures before a conclusion is reached on the inspection,” the minister added.

“In most cases, this kind of inspection takes around three to four months, sometimes up to seven to eight months, and we are aware that Pusan National University will carry out the inspection quickly considering the seriousness of the situation.”

Near the end of the meeting, Yoo declined to comment directly on rumors of her having been picked as the next prime minister. There is speculation that incumbent Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun may resign next month and enter next year’s presidential race.

Yoo and Kim Boo-kyum, former minister of the interior and safety, are two members of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea who are rumored to be under consideration as the final prime minister of the Moon Jae-in administration.

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