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COVID-19 infections of teachers, students fuel concerns over school reopenings

Some 880 teachers visited Itaewon, 41 of who went to clubs linked to Itaewon outbreak


Concerns over the planned reopening of schools are rising with students and teachers being newly confirmed with COVID-19 in connection to the outbreak in Itaewon, Seoul’s nightlife district.

The Education Ministry, however, made clear its intention to stick with class resumption schedules, starting with high school seniors on May 20.

“For now, we are not considering postponing the reopening of schools, scheduled for next Wednesday for high school seniors,” Vice Education Minister Park Baeg-beom said at a briefing Thursday.

Instead, the ministry is studying various options, such as reducing class sizes and students coming to school every other week, he added.

Currently, all private and public schools and kindergartens here are physically closed, with classes conducted online.

According to the ministry data, a total of 880 teachers, including 514 Korean teachers and 366 native English teachers nationwide, visited Itaewon between late April and early May, the period of the virus breakout. 

Some 641 people were tested for the virus, with the rest to be tested. Among those tested, 524 people were cleared of the pathogen, while the rest were awaiting their test results, the ministry said. 

Of those who went to Itaewon, 41 people -- 7 Koreans and 34 foreign nationals -- have been to the bars and clubs identified as places of transmission for some 133 coronavirus cases so far. Among them, 40 people tested negative, while one person is waiting for the result, according to the ministry.

Some 11 people said they had come into contact with confirmed patients linked to the Itaewon outbreak. All of them tested negative.

The finding came after regional education offices conducted a survey on Wednesday to identify those who visited Itaewon between April 24 and May 6 among educators, school employees and high school seniors.

The ministry will expand the survey to teachers and owners of the private schools to find visitors to Itaewon during the period.

A 25-year-old private cram school instructor residing in Incheon tested positive for COVID-19 after a recent visit to Itaewon on May 2-3. He is believed to have infected 14 people directly and indirectly, including nine students, as of Thursday, according to Incheon officials.

Saying that the outbreak in Itaewon is a reminder that the country is not yet safe from the novel coronavirus, Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae urged private cram schools to turn to remote learning instead of giving offline classes.

“The Education Ministry delayed the reopening of schools by a week nationwide, but we believe more thorough, detailed measures should be enforced regionally,” she said at an emergency meeting with Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon and Cho Hee-yeon, superintendent of the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education.

The three held the meeting to discuss measures to toughen monitoring on whether private cram schools follow quarantine instructions.

Students were initially set to return to classrooms, starting with third-year students at high school Wednesday, as the country’s new cases had hovered around 10 since mid-April, with most of them coming from overseas.

In the wake of a surge in new infections linked to bars and clubs in Itaewon, the government delayed the reopening of schools by another week on Monday.

As Korea sees a growing number of cases of secondary and even possibly tertiary transmissions nationwide arising from the Itaewon cluster, the government faces mounting pressure to further postpone the resumption of offline classes.

A total of 133 cases have been traced to the bars and clubs in Itaewon as of Thursday, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“There is a need to watch how the situation linked to the Itaewon cluster develops in the next few days,” Yoon Tae-ho, a senior official from the Ministry of Health and Welfare, said at a briefing Thursday.

“Given the situation, the Education Ministry would be able to make a decision regarding the reopening of schools.”

One high school senior in Seoul who visited bars and clubs in Itaewon was also tested for the virus, with the result coming back negative. The student is believed to have come into close contact with 15 people who are under self-quarantine.

The ministry said it is gathering data on how many students visited Itaewon during the period.

By Ock Hyun-ju (