The government of South Korea announced plans on Monday to reopen schools next week, citing a diminished threat from the Chinese coronavirus.
South Korea has postponed the beginning of the spring semester four times so far since imposing social distancing measures in March. Yet with the average daily number of new cases now close to zero, education authorities said they are ready to start phasing in the renewal of classes based on age group.
Schools are scheduled to reopen across the country starting May 20, two months after the government closed them in response to the pandemic.
“We’re now preparing for the opening of schools while managing the daily risks of the disease,” Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae said at a press briefing Monday. “If a student turns out to be infected with the virus, health authorities will take the necessary action and the school will switch to online classes.”
Experts consider South Korea to have implemented among the most effective responses to the coronavirus, successfully introducing mass testing, intensive contact tracing, and symptom tracking apps aimed at limiting it spread.
Health authorities are nevertheless urging caution to protect the country’s some 5.5 million elementary, middle, and high school students, requiring them to conduct mock drills and drawing up guidelines in the case of any resurgence in infections.
The current plan is for high school students to return to school on May 13 to resume preparation for the highly competitive annual college entrance exam in December. Younger students will resume their studies in stages between May 20 and June 1.
Under the new measures, both students and teachers will be required to wear masks except for during mealtimes, regularly wipe their desks, and maintain distance as they move around the premises. School authorities will also need to carry out the disinfection of surfaces, temperature checks, and the rearranging of seating.
“At our schools, we must adopt a new lifestyle in line with [social distancing rules],” Yoo explained. “Our schools cannot return to the state before Covid-19, and so all us educators must be prepared to operate schools in new ways.”
The government also plans to ease various social distancing restrictions on Wednesday for society as a whole, allowing public services such as libraries and museums to reopen in stages. They are also setting up hundreds of respiratory clinics nationwide as preparation for a potential second wave of infections in the future.
“The plan is to make [these clinics] a model of public-private cooperation,” said Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip at the press conference. “A detailed plan and guidelines will be created in early May in coordination with medical professionals.”
According to official data, South Korea has so far recorded 10,801 cases and 252 deaths, a relatively low figure given its proximity to China. Of that total, at least 9,217 people recovered from the virus, while 1,332 are currently being treated for its symptoms.