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S. Korea considers reopening schools in May


The South Korean government said Monday it would soon put forward a timetable to reopen schools, as the rate of new coronavirus infections stabilizes.
Currently, all students are taking online classes at home.
“We cannot compromise children’s safety for anything, but we cannot confine students to their homes until the end of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said Monday, directing the Education Ministry to study a road map for schools reopening in stages.
The return to physical instruction will likely happen gradually, most likely from next month, and will start with third-year students in middle and high schools.
“We are discussing ways to have third graders in middle and high schools, who are preparing to enter higher educational institutes, go back to schools first,” Vice Health and Welfare Minister Kim Gang-lip said at a briefing Monday.
The when and how will be decided based on opinions from parents, educators, experts and relevant ministries, with the details to be announced in early May at the latest, he said.
Pupils coming to schools at different times or on every other day are among the options under consideration.
Korea has largely brought the coronavirus under control. Korea reported 10 new cases Monday, with the number of new infections hovering around 10 for the ninth straight day. Most of the newly discovered cases come from overseas. 
Korea is now preparing to transition to “routine distancing,” which would allow people to return to their regular routines while combating the spread of the coronavirus. 

The government had two conditions for the transition: less than 50 new infections per day and less than 5 percent of new cases with an untraceable source of infection. The conditions are currently being met. For the past two weeks, transmission routes of 4.5 percent of the new cases are unknown.
For school reopenings, however, “much more conservative” standards will apply – such as whether proper guidelines and resources are in place at schools and whether educators are prepared, Kim added.
Enforcing social distancing rules in classrooms, especially for younger children, remains a challenge, given they spend much of their time in enclosed classrooms in close proximity and it is practically difficult to keep them apart from each other and ensure they wear masks all the time.
Led by the Education Ministry and regional education offices, schools are accelerating preparations to bring students back to classrooms.
Nearly 100 percent of the schools nationwide -- some 8,374 kindergartens and 12,071 elementary, middle and high schools --– have been disinfected. Desks were rearranged to ensure physical distancing among students. Schools have stockpiled thermometers, hand sanitizer and face masks. Mock training for schools reopening is also underway until Wednesday, according to authorities on Friday.
The reopening of the country’s elementary, middle and high schools, originally scheduled for March 2, has been pushed back four times amid concerns that enclosed, packed classrooms could host new clusters of infection.
The unprecedented operation of schools online is posing burdens to students, parents and educators, leaving many confused.
Parents, especially working parents, struggle to find a way to supervise their children taking online classes at home, educators are underprepared in terms of technological infrastructure and educational material, and students remain confused about the sudden change in academic schedule.  
Despite the shutdown of schools, 82 percent of private cram schools nationwide had already opened classes as of April 17. 
By Ock Hyun-ju (