CHANGWON -- Normally this time of the year, schools throughout the country are filled with giggles and laughter as students prepare gifts, write thank-you letters and sometimes scheme mischievous-yet-endearing pranks to surprise and thank their teachers for their hard work.
This year's Teacher's Day, which falls on Friday, is instead marked by dead silence and empty classrooms at schools, as the new coronavirus outbreak has ruptured one of society's most ordinary-yet-important routines: kids going to school.
Thus for Chung Da-young, a 24-year-old newly minted elementary school teacher in Changwon, 398 kilometers southeast of Seoul, the experience of her first-ever Teacher's Day could not be more unexciting. At the same time, it makes her yearn to meet her 28 sixth-grade students, who she hasn't yet seen in person.
"Since we've never met in person, students call me LAN-cable teacher. I hope these hard times soon pass by so that we can teach and learn at school," Chung told Yonhap News Agency in a telephone interview.
Millions of elementary and secondary school students in South Korea are taking online classes instead of going to schools that remain closed due to COVID-19.
The nation has adopted what it calls an "everyday life quarantine" scheme, slowly opening public and business establishments in a limited fashion under strict sanitation measures.
But due to the recent surge in virus cases traced to Seoul's Itaewon area, the country has decided to push back the scheduled reopening of schools by one week, allowing students to physically attend classes in phases starting this coming Wednesday.
Chung said she has only seen pictures of her students through the school's online network, and even those pictures were from five years ago when the students enrolled as first graders.
Outside of online teaching, Chung talks with her students individually over the phone -- 20 minutes twice a week with each child -- to check their progress.
Non-stop phone calls can take quite a toll, with Chung often ending up with a sore throat. But she said it's all worth it, as it creates a deeper bond with her students.
"In the beginning there was some awkwardness in speaking with someone who they even haven't met. But the kids now seem adjusted in speaking comfortably," Chung said. "They now freely share how they are spending time at home."
Maintaining students' attention isn't an easy job, let alone doing it online. Hence she makes sure to include random quizzes. Chung said she even once played a ukulele for her students.
For teachers, learning to create PowerPoint presentation slides for online classes is also a must in this age of COVID-19, Chung explained.
"If I'm happy my students are happy. This is the mantra that I remember when I prepare for online classes," she said. "It's all worth it at the end of the day if students say that they enjoyed the sessions."
As the opening of schools nears, Chung said she has mixed feelings. While teachers are looking forward to finally meeting the kids in person, school faculties are also on heightened alert over potential infections among students.
In light of the recent new infections, education authorities decided to tighten social distancing rules again, which were eased earlier this month, in schools and private institutes. Private institutes that fail to comply with the rules can face a forceful closure, according to the authorities.
The mandatory wearing of masks in classes during warming weather is also a big concern.
"I'm concerned whether the students can stay focused on classes while wearing masks and being spaced out from one another," Chung said. "I'm especially baffled as to how to teach music."
She added, "Still, I hope schools open as conditions get better, since there are challenges in managing students just through online classes." (Yonhap)