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Seoul education chief hints at allowing more in-person classes

Amid virus woes, schools reopen for second semester

Seoul Education Superintendent Cho Hee-yeon greets students for the beginning of the second semester at an elementary school in western Seoul on Tuesday. (Yonhap)
Seoul Education Superintendent Cho Hee-yeon greets students for the beginning of the second semester at an elementary school in western Seoul on Tuesday. (Yonhap)
As schools reopened for the second semester, Seoul Education Superintendent Cho Hee-yeon has hinted at expanding in-person classes to more students even with the toughest social distancing measures in place.

“If the distancing level (in Seoul) comes down to Level 3 by Sept. 3, we can allow in-person classes for all students. Even if Level 4 continues, we can still have in-person classes for two-thirds of students,” Cho said during a visit to an elementary school in western Seoul on Tuesday.

Cho went on to strike a more optimistic note, suggesting that all students could return to in-person classes if “various methods are implemented, such as dividing students into morning and afternoon classes.” He did not elaborate further.

Adding that it is inevitable to expand in-person classes in the second semester as students will have to play catch-up, Cho said education authorities will thoroughly review strict COVID-19 protocols at school before Sept. 3 with the aim of bringing in more students from Sept. 6 onward.

The Seoul education chief will hold a press conference on Thursday to address the school policies and support measures for the second semester to make up for lost time and progress.

About 20 percent of 20,512 schools nationwide had begun the second semester as of Tuesday, according to the Ministry of Education. Of 5.93 million students, 280,000 or 4.8 percent, started attending in-person classes.

Under the Education Ministry’s current school attendance guidelines, kindergartners, first and second graders and high school seniors are able to attend in-person classes regardless of the social distancing level.

Depending on COVID-19 case numbers, the ministry hopes more students will be able to go to school starting Sept. 6 after antivirus measures at schools undergo evaluations.

Under the ministry’s plans, schools will be able to bring back all students even with Level 3 measures, depending on their circumstances.

Currently, Level 3 rules, which are in place for most regions outside Seoul, Gyeonggi Province and Incheon at the moment, cap the number of students in classrooms at varying levels. That covers three-quarters of third and sixth grade students in elementary school, two-thirds of middle school students and half of first- and second-year high school students.

In case of Level 4 measures -- the stiffest level -- are maintained, in-person attendance could be bumped up to no more than half of third to sixth graders at elementary schools, no more than two-thirds of middle school students and no more than half of first- and second-year high school students.

As of Wednesday, face-to-face classes are only allowed at schools in the Greater Seoul area for a third of middle school students and half of first- and second-year high school students.

Although teachers agree that students need to come back to school to receive a proper education and develop social skills, there are concerns that faculty members are having to take on too much of a burden at once.

“In order to expand in-person classes for educational recovery, the authorities need to come up with measures to support distancing efforts at school,” an official from the Korea Teachers and Education Worker’s Union told The Korea Herald.

“Many teachers are still conducting antivirus measures while having to run classes. The Education Ministry and local education offices should help them focus on teaching students.”

There are also worries that a return to in-person schooling could cause a spread of the virus among students. There were 108 students that tested positive for the coronavirus per day from Aug. 5 to 9, according to Education Ministry data. That figure went up to 136 from last Thursday through Tuesday.

By Kan Hyeong-woo (hwkan@heraldcorp.com)
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