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S. Korea: School reopening faces uncertainty amid uptick in COVID-19 infections involving teachers, students

Following a recent spike in Coronavirus (COVID-19) infections involving teachers and students, the plan to reopen schools, already delayed several times, is up in the air again.

The education ministry has been weighing the risks faced by schoolchildren when they physically attend school and interact with teachers and peers, as parents have misgivings about school reopening in the face of possible transmission of the novel coronavirus.

The health authorities have so far traced 120 COVID-19 patients in connection with the outbreak that started in nightclubs of the city’s multicultural district of Itaewon.

Among the confirmed cases, more than 10 are young students believed to have contracted the virus from their teachers who visited some of the clubs.

According to the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, some 158 teachers and school officials are confirmed to have visited such entertainment facilities in the city’s popular nightlife districts, including Itaewon, from April 29 to May 6.

On Thursday morning, a teenage student and his mother in Incheon were confirmed to have contracted the virus, after the student’s teacher at a private institute spent time in Itaewon clubs and later tested positive.

The teenager’s school friend also tested positive, bringing the total cases traced to the Incheon instructor to 14, with most of them students and their contacts.

Authorities also found that some underage students sneaked into such clubs during the period against the law.

The recent surge in infections increases pressure on the education ministry, which has postponed reopening schools five times already.

“The ministry may announce a plan on reopening as early as this weekend or early next week at the latest,” a ministry official told Yonhap News Agency.

Amid growing pressure to create a safe learning environment, the relevant government agencies held an emergency meeting Thursday morning to strengthen quarantine and health safety measures in schools and private education institutions, as well as other facilities widely used by underage students.

The government had planned phased reopening nationwide starting Wednesday, in line with its relaxed social distancing measures that went into effect on May 6.

But it delayed the plan earlier this week following the unexpected outbreak in Itaewon.

The ministry expects classes for high school seniors taking the university entrance exam this winter to open on May 20 as scheduled.

Vice Education Minister Park Paek-beom said during a radio interview Wednesday that the school reopening schedule could change again, except for high school seniors, after closely consulting health authorities.

The ministry has put in place strict hygiene and social distancing rules, as well as detailed guidelines for monitoring possible patients to tackle the spread of the virus.

However, some parents remain concerned about the highly contagious virus.

A parent, who asked not to be named, said, “The possibility of an outbreak of even one patient at school doesn’t sit well,” referring to the isolation guidelines in the ministry’s response manual.

“I heard teenagers are more likely to be asymptomatic and to unwittingly spread the virus.

“I don’t think school quarantine measures are stringent enough,” the 49-year-old said.

An education expert, who also asked to remain anonymous, told Yonhap News Agency, “The ministry shouldn’t patch up the problem by delaying reopening schools on an as-needed basis.”

“The central government should set clear guidelines on this and put forward a short- and long-term plan.”

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