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[Exclusive] Jeju’s international schools to make up for COVID-19 delay through online learning, Saturday classes

But Education Ministry has yet to suggest alternatives for local schools

A lounge at an international school in Daejeong-eup, Seogwipo, Jeju Island (Branksome Hall Asia)
A lounge at an international school in Daejeong-eup, Seogwipo, Jeju Island (Branksome Hall Asia)

SEJONG -- One of the major concerns amid the COVID-19 panic in South Korea is how it will affect the academic calendar for students in elementary school through high school. Considering the delayed start of the new school year, which was supposed to begin March 2, parents are asking whether their children will be able to attend classes for the required number of days and whether the authorities will fine-tune the vacation period to make up for school closures.

But the Ministry of Education has yet to issue any statement, despite growing pressure from parents and students.

Sources say at least three of the four international schools on Jeju Island have already decided to make up for the missed days by offering online classes or Saturday classes in April, after students return to school March 23.

These are Branksome Hall Asia from Canada, St. Johnsbury Academy Jeju from the US and Korea International School, Jeju Campus, all located in Gueok-ri, Seogwipo City, an area known as Global Education City. The other -- UK-based North London Collegiate School Jeju -- has mapped out similar measures.

Branksome Hall Asia and SJA Jeju are scheduled to reopen March 23, like local schools, in accordance with the three-week delay mandated by the Education Ministry of Korea.

But Branksome Hall Asia has decided to begin classes via online a week earlier, during the week of March 16-20.

Further, the school has notified students and parents of changes to its academic calendar that will include offline classes on Saturdays starting April 4.

A source said “in-class learning at the school will be provided on three Saturdays next month (April 4, 11 and 18).” The source did not rule out the possibility that more such classes could be offered in the coming months, depending on how the situation unfolds.

St. Johnsbury Academy Jeju has scheduled five Saturday classes after school opens. Though there will be no online lectures during the week of March 16-20, the school is planning to offer online classes on weekdays starting March 23 should the start of the new school year be postponed further.

Neither school plans to modify its summer vacation schedule, whereas Korea’s Education Ministry and provincial superintendents of education are considering scaling back the summer and winter vacations.

A Branksome Hall Asia employee said the Jeju Provincial Office of Education had confirmed it would recognize the online classes and count them toward the hours of instruction required during the school year.

The office had already looked into its lesson structure as well as online education platforms, the employee said. The school was unwilling to shorten its summer vacation period -- slated to start in late June and run through August -- and no parents had complained about its plans to make up for missed days via Saturday classes and online learning, the employee added.

On Tuesday, a KIS Jeju employee confirmed the school’s plans to offer classes on Saturdays and remotely via the internet, noting that it had already carried out online classes for two weeks.

The other, NLCS Jeju, is said to be following suit or taking corresponding actions. An insider familiar with Global Education City said the four schools had made their decisions “in line with” each other. 

A teacher at a Korean school in Seoul said one option would be for the Education Ministry to benchmark the weekend classes. “If it is not possible, online classes are recommended amid the lingering uncertainty and study vacuum. Some quarantine experts forecast the COVID-19 phase could continue to July or August.”

A ministry official has already unveiled a provisional policy to curtail the summer and winter vacation periods. While more and more students and parents are signing petitions asking the government not to cut vacations short, the ministry is still taking a wait and see position.

A significant number of online commenters are calling on the government to slash the legally required number of days of instruction from 190 and to further postpone the reopening of schools beyond March 23, in consideration of ongoing risks from the epidemic.

Most of all, they are demanding a quick decision from policymakers.

“More and more high school and middle school students are resorting to private educational institutes and running the risk of getting infected with the virus,” one parent said. “The government should be held accountable for the situation, having failed to suggest any alternatives for students anxious about preparations for college entrance exams or midterm tests.”

Since the second postponement of the new school year -- initially it was pushed ahead by a week and then by two more -- some Korean schools have assigned work for students to complete at home during the three-week delay.

Meanwhile, a local industry insider heaped praise on the efforts of an international school on Jeju Island to stop the spread of the coronavirus. “A school there isolated Chinese students at a hotel for two weeks in February, upon their arrival in Jeju after they visited their homeland during the Lunar New Year holiday (in late January).”

Chinese students reportedly make up about 10 percent of the student population at Global Education City, though proportions differ among the four schools and also by grade level.

Koreans account for a dominant percentage of students at all the schools, followed by Chinese. The schools also have students from countries including Japan, Russia, North America, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

By Kim Yon-se (