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Education Ministry plans to bring all students back to school in fall

Over 50 percent of population should be vaccinated before reopening schools at full capacity, expert says

Students get tested for COVID-19 at an elementary school in South Jeolla Province on May 3. (Yonhap)
Students get tested for COVID-19 at an elementary school in South Jeolla Province on May 3. (Yonhap)
The Ministry of Education is hoping to bring all students back to school for in-person classes in the fall semester, a ministry official said Thursday.

Schools currently follow the government’s anti-virus guidelines to decide how many students can physically come to classes while others stay at home for remote learning courses.

Under the highest level of social distancing, for instance, no students are allowed to come to school and have to take online classes from home. On the other hand, up to two-thirds of students can go to school at the lowest level of social distancing.

“We will put our utmost efforts into creating an environment to bring all students back to school in the second semester,” the ministry official told The Korea Herald. “The ultimate goal is to go back to pre-coronavirus situation.”

The Education Ministry plans to revise the anti-virus regulations for school in accordance with the government’s new social distancing guidelines, which are expected to be revealed and become effective in July, according to the official.

“We are consulting with the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency to finish vaccination for teachers before summer break ends,” Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae said in an interview with local media earlier in the week.

The initiatives to reopen schools for all students came amid mounting fears of widening education gap and students not being able to develop social skills.

Although there are preconditions before schools can bring in students at full capacity, experts say, it is now time for the society to cooperate to help students go back to school.

“In order to let all students go to school, the number of local infections need to decrease. A certain level of vaccination should take place to achieve that,” said Chun Eun-mi, a professor at Ewha Womans University Medical Center.

“For our country to open schools in September, more than 50 percent of citizens should receive inoculation at least once by July or August and at least 30 percent need to be vaccinated twice.”

Some 3.7 million people across the country, or 7.2 percent of the total population, have been vaccinated once as of Thursday, according to the Central Disease Control Headquarters. The government’s scenario is to give first dose of vaccination for 13 million people in the first half of the year.

“If you look at recent data, most confirmed cases among young students happened within the family members. Parents and teachers get infected and transfer the virus to their children and students,” said Lee Jae-gap, a professor at Hallym University Medical Center.

“In other words, if we can restrain the group infections and virus spread in the society, that means schools can be safe. Moving forward, policies should change to revive and protect schools as we enter the post-coronavirus era.”

Some believe students are ready to go back to school because they have already been following the quarantine guidelines for the past year.

“Students wear masks all day long at school. Each desk has screens (to block droplets). Students have followed the anti-virus rules quite well in the first semester,” said Kim Su-jin, president of National Parents Association United. “I think it will be safe to let all students attend classes in-person in the second semester.”

As much as students missed going to school and being with their friends, however, concerns remain.

“Fully reopening schools does not sound good because it still looks dangerous,” Yang Ha-yeon, a first grader in high school in Seoul, told The Korea Herald. “There are some people who do not wear a mask properly (at school). So that needs to be kept in check more tightly.”

“It would be good to go back to school since it’s time for (Yang) to grow up with her peers, but I am worried about potential problems that could pop up as the quarantine measures do not seem to be clearly effective,” An Jong-ok, Yang’s mother, said.

“I think it is a bit hypocritical to speak of reopening schools at full capacity when the current social distancing measures put a ban on gathering of five or more people,” she added.

Kan Hyeong-woo (