By Hyonhee Shin
SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea on Tuesday canceled the re-opening of schools next week as clusters of coronavirus infections flare and will launch online classes while delaying the annual college entrance exams.
After an early surge in cases, South Korea has brought down its rate of new infections to about 100 or fewer a day, but groups of cases in churches, hospitals and nursing homes, as well as imported cases, are still emerging.
Authorities have postponed the beginning of the school semester three times from early March to April 6, and have decided to do so again, given the persistence of the outbreak.
“We regret that we have not reached levels where children can go to schools safely even though we mobilized all our capabilities to substantially decrease risks of infection,” Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun told a televised meeting of government officials.
“It is difficult to guarantee the safety of children as the sizable number of new patients emerge every day, and there are concerns that it might spread again from schools to homes and communities.”
Schools will launch online classes from April 9, Chung said, promising to ensure students’ access to technology at home to minimize academic disruption. The highly competitive annual college entrance exam will be postponed by two weeks to Dec. 3, Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae said.
A government survey of parents and others this week showed 72% of respondents opposed the April 6 opening of schools and 66% supported online teaching, Yoo said.
“We will explore measures to carry out actual classes and online lessons in parallel, possibly starting in April, depending on the situation,” she told a briefing.
The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 125 new coronavirus cases on Tuesday, bringing the total number of infections to 9,786. The death toll rose to 164 by late Tuesday. The tally of new cases marks an uptick from 78 on Monday.
Of the new cases, 60 were from the hard-hit southeastern city of Daegu, where a hospital saw more than 75 infections over the past few days, KCDC data showed. Another 29 were travelers arriving from abroad, all but one of them Korean.
Starting Wednesday, everyone arriving from abroad will have to spend two weeks in quarantine under rules aimed at curbing imported cases. Some 7,000 people are expected to land every day, most of them students studying abroad.
Authorities have warned of a “zero-tolerance” policy for anyone breaking quarantine rules, with punishment of a year in prison or a fine of up to 10 million won ($8,210).
“Whether it is our citizen or a foreign national, please keep in mind that this is an obligation you must accept as a member of the community, a step not only to monitor your health conditions but also to prevent yourself from spreading the virus,” Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip said.
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Cynthia Kim; Editing by Janet Lawrence)