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Virus worries remain on S. Korea’s plan to return to full in-person classes in fall

Better response measures needed from Education Ministry, teachers say

Students walk into a middle school in Seoul on Monday as the Ministry of Education prepares to expand the proportion of in-person classes starting next semester. (Yonhap)
Students walk into a middle school in Seoul on Monday as the Ministry of Education prepares to expand the proportion of in-person classes starting next semester. (Yonhap)
Education workers have raised concerns over South Korea’s plans to resume in-person classes from fall, as COVID-19 continues to spread and authorities have not clarified how they would deal with a virus outbreak in a classroom setting.

Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae said Sunday that students from all grades would be allowed to fully attend in-person classes starting next semester while daily number of new COVID-19 cases remains below 1,000.

The attendance cap is set at two-thirds for middle and high schools, and three-quarters for grades 3 through 6 at elementary schools. No attendance cap is set for first and second grade elementary school students until the daily number of added cases exceeds 1,000 but stays below 2,000.

All classes will shift to virtual classes when the number of new cases exceeds 2,000. Yoo said more details would be announced in July.

The plan was made in line with South Korean government’s move to introduce a new, eased four-tier social distancing system from next month to allow more businesses stay open for longer and larger private gatherings.

The ministry is also expanding the proportion of in-person classes as many wanted to tackle the growing achievement gap, side effects of virtual learning and lack of care for school-age children.

A survey from a local teachers’ group on 685 elementary, middle and high school students released in May showed that 87.1 percent of respondents said they would like to return to school despite COVID-19 woes.

But Yoo’s announcement has also been met with caution and concern, as many of the solutions that the ministry presented were largely repeats of what authorities had pursued in the past to respond to virus woes.

During the press briefing, Yoo said schools will be allowed to flexibly adjust the number of students per classroom while dividing classes to operate in mornings and afternoons, as she believes having fewer number of students in a classroom will help prevent the virus from spreading within school.

The ministry had presented these same solutions early this year, but teachers’ groups said they would increase the workload for teachers in guiding their students in classrooms.

“Teachers are fatigued from ensuring virus measures are followed among students while taking charge of disinfecting classrooms and other school facilities on top of teaching in classrooms,” the Korean Federation of Teachers’ Association said in a statement Sunday.

“Regional education offices and local governments should directly dispatch supportive manpower to schools in guiding virus control measures and assisting administrative duties.”

The association also claimed that lowering the number of students per classroom is a way of maintaining social distancing among students, which the ministry is not so upfront about addressing.

“We should not be levying all the responsibility of enforcing everyday virus rules at schools solely to teachers,” the KFTA said. “For full in-person classes to resume, we need improvements to educational environment where teachers can entirely focus on running classrooms with 20 or fewer students.”

Some teachers stressed school workers and students should be prioritized in the national vaccination scheme for the full attendance plan to run effectively. The safety of those in school cannot be fully assured unless they are vaccinated and safeguarded from the virus, they say.

“There should be a prioritized vaccination plan for those working at schools other than teachers, like cafeteria workers and virus control guides,” the Korea Teachers and Education Workers Union said in a statement Sunday.

“We also need a prioritized vaccination plan for students who are old enough to be included in the national scheme.”

Yet teachers’ groups welcomed the ministry’s decision itself to expand in-person classes, which they believe will help tackle the growing achievement gap among students and lack of child care resources for parents when their school-aged children stayed home for virtual learning.

“COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us the importance of schools in our everyday lives,” an activist group within the teachers’ union said in a statement.

“We hope the COVID-19 outbreak serves as an opportunity for South Korea’s education sector to take a step forward with schools at its very center.”

By Ko Jun-tae (ko.juntae@heraldcorp.com)
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