High school seniors go to school in Seoul last Tuesday. (Yonhap)
With summer vacations ending, children started to return to their classrooms under relaxed distancing rules for schools Monday, despite an uncontrolled outbreak of the coronavirus.
Last week, the Ministry of Education eased social distancing guidelines in schools for the fall semester. The measure was aimed at running in-person classes even under Level 4 distancing measures, the most stringent set of rules, as long as there are attendance caps to keep a safe distance among students in order to curb coronavirus transmissions.
The cap varies depending on grades: It is set at half of the total student body from third to sixth graders in elementary schools, two-thirds in middle schools, and also half for first and second graders in high schools.
Kindergartens, first and second grades in elementary schools, and schools for disabled children will be exempt from the rules regardless of the severity of the pandemic, given the heightened need for in-person interactions for their development and education. High school seniors can also attend in-person classes full-time to prepare for the national college entrance exam slated for Nov. 18.
For the two weeks until Sept. 6, the start of the second semester, schools are still allowed to hold in-person lessons in a limited fashion.
The decision, which came amid record-breaking virus infections nationwide in recent weeks, reflected a consensus among teachers and education officials that the pandemic widened inequities in learning and that in-person classes have benefits that outweigh infection risks among children.
The measure also took into consideration that working parents find it increasingly burdensome and exhausting to juggle work and child care during the day, and fully opening schools is a crucial step toward economic recovery.
The ministry said it would eliminate remote learning options come September, even though some parents demand the ministry make it available for them.
Instead, the ministry increased the number of "at-home schooling" days to around 57 days a year from the current 40, when children are officially allowed to be absent from school.
Currently the wider capital area -- Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi Province -- as well as Daejeon, Busan and four other cities, is under the Level 4 virus restrictions, which originally enforced an outright ban on in-person learning at school.
The rest of the country is placed under the second-strongest virus restriction level, which requires the attendance cap to be placed at two-thirds or less of the total student body.
Under the relaxed rules, schools can resume in-person lessons full-time in Level 3 if virus transmissions in schools are considered to be manageable.
The ministry has been seeking to bring all students back to classrooms come September, out of concerns over a widening gap in educational achievements and the effects on children from a yearlong pandemic. (Yonhap)