The number of minors infected with the novel coronavirus in South Korea surpassed 500 on Monday, as the government mulls further delaying the opening of schools to stem the spread of the virus.
The government is mainly concerned that enclosed, crowded classrooms may turn into new clusters of infections, with children and students transmitting the virus to high-risk groups in local communities.
The Ministry of Education is widely expected to announce the decision Tuesday, and another two-week delay is seen as likely. That will push back the start of the spring semester at schools nationwide from the current March 23 to April 6.
“In school environments, infection risks are high because they (students and children) share spaces while spending time together,” said Kim Gang-lip, vice health and welfare minister, at a briefing Monday.
The fatality rate of COVID-19 in young people is low, but it is highly possible that the students could further spread the virus to the elderly in their homes and local communities if they are infected, he added.
The elderly are more vulnerable to the virus, with the fatality rate for those in their 70s at 5.27 percent and those in their 80s at 9.26 percent here. The overall fatality rate here now stands at 0.92 percent.
So far, 517 people under the age of 20 -- 85 people aged up to 9 and 432 aged 10-19 -- have tested positive for COVID-19 here. None has died of the virus.
At least 93 teachers have been infected with the virus, according to the ministry data.
The number of students at kindergartens and elementary, middle and high schools is estimated at 6.1 million as of last year. The number of teachers at the schools is 497,000.
Parents, students and teachers appear to back the idea of extending school closures.
More than 100,000 people have signed a petition on the presidential office’s website as of Monday, asking for a delay in school openings.
Heads of regional education offices -- including Cho Hee-yeon, who heads Seoul’s education office -- and the country’s teachers labor group also urged the delay
If the start date is delayed again, the country would see an unprecedented change, with kids going back to school in early April.
Changes to the academic schedule and curriculum might be inevitable -- including the date of this year’s college entrance exam, scheduled for Nov. 19. Schools will have to find alternatives to meet the legally required number of days -- by cutting summer vacations, for example.
Under local laws, the number of days that elementary, middle and high schools must be open is set at 190. In accordance with the ministry’s guidelines released in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, up to 19 days could be eliminated at school principals’ discretion.