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[Feature] Schools switch to virtual sports amid nightmare air pollution 

School principal stresses importance of physical activities as more students stay indoors due to worsening air pollution

Exercise is an indispensable part of a healthy lifestyle -- especially at school, where playground pursuits can get kids into the habit of keeping active.

But with worsening air pollution raising health concerns, schools are scrambling to find indoor alternatives to playground activities.

Students practice kicking a ball at virtual objects on the screen in Seoul Banghak Elementary School’s indoor sports facility. Bak Se-hwan/The Korea Herald
Students practice kicking a ball at virtual objects on the screen in Seoul Banghak Elementary School’s indoor sports facility. Bak Se-hwan/The Korea Herald

Last month, Seoul Banghak Elementary School in Seoul introduced a virtual sports classroom that provides a full-length wide screen for a virtual sports environment supported by high-tech sensors and virtual reality technology.

The school’s indoor sports facility allows students to engage in sports activities, designed to replace physical education classes when air pollution levels are high.

“We’re told no activities outdoors when air quality is bad,” Choi Eun-joon, 12, who was practicing kicking a ball at virtual objects on the screen in the sports room, told The Korea Herald.

“I prefer going outside, but it’s still fun this way because I can play with my friends. And I also get to practice all sorts of soccer skills, like kicking, throwing and heading,” Choi added.

Choi’s classmate Park Hyun-soo said he does not like being forced by his parents to wear a surgical-style face mask.

“At least I don’t have to wear one while I’m in here. Wearing them all the time while outside is really uncomfortable.” Choi said.

According to school principal Kim Dong-ha, its virtual sports room was set up as part of the government’s plan to deal with worsening levels of fine dust in the air during spring.

The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism announced on March 26 that it plans to spend 6.4 billion won ($6 million) to expand virtual sports facilities to 178 elementary schools across the country this year.

Worsening air quality

While it is not designed to address the root causes of air pollution, the new sports facility has received positive responses from parents as their children’s physical education is no longer restricted by the conditions outdoors.

“We have 51 educational and physical programs here, including programs that help students understand school subjects better. This facility is also a good alternative to going outside and playing on the school field when we can’t conduct activities outdoors,” said Kim, the principal.

Apart from providing the indoor exercise facility, however, the school has “virtually no other ways” to safeguard school students from polluted air, Kim added.

“It’s all the more reasonable to install air purifiers in every classroom, but unfortunately, we can’t afford to do so due to the school’s insufficient budget.”

Earlier this month, the Ministry of Education vowed to install air purifiers in all classrooms of kindergartens, elementary schools and special purpose schools in the next three years to improve air quality in the classrooms, revising enforcement regulations related to the School Health Act.

As of March, just over 37 percent of those schools have either air purification facilities or purifiers, whose replaceable filters can cost up to tens of thousands of won a year.

The ministry’s announcement came as it was criticized for not taking effective steps to protect school children from bad air quality in one of the world’s most polluted countries.

Seoul and other metropolitan cities often see a daily average of airborne particulate matter hitting “extremely bad” levels that can reach deep into the lungs and cause lung cancer.

On Friday, three baseball games were canceled in Seoul due to fine dust, the first time that air pollution shut down games. Fine dust warnings were issued Friday as the concentration levels of particulate matter reached 377 micrograms per cubic meter in some parts of the capital city.

“Nowadays, children grow taller and taller, thanks to good nutrition, but their physical fitness remains relatively poor as they move less,” Banghak Elementary School principal Kim said.

“We need to build more indoor facilities for when there is bad air quality as physical activities are not only important for their physical development and fitness, but is also important to help develop their mental health and help kids develop socially and emotionally,” Kim said.

By Bak Se-hwan (