Seoul, South Korea – Two months ago, South Korea was in a state of low-level panic over the coronavirus. People were buying face masks by the dozen, deliveries from online marketplaces surged and the streets were mostly empty of people.
But South Korea has more recoveries than new infections now even though it once had the second-largest outbreak in the world. And life is beginning to return to some kind of normality.
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Last week, schools began to reopen, five weeks later than scheduled. But classes for all government schools will now be conducted virtually, starting with the oldest students.
“I have been thinking about whether the government can come up with a better solution than this, but this feels like the best choice for now,” Jang Eun-ki, an 18-year-old student at Wonjong high school, told Al Jazeera. “It feels like it was an inevitable decision to take classes online.”
In some ways, South Korea’s back-to-school move for its more than one billion students will be a test case for the rest of the world. In some corners of the globe, school closures have sparked a fierce debate about whether pupils should repeat the academic year or continue distance learning.
South Korea is integrating its students into online teaching on a complicated schedule, based on age. The oldest children started classes a week ago, and others start on Thursday (April 16).
The youngest will only resume studies on April 20, while kindergartens and daycare centres will remain suspended indefinitely.
For South Korea’s highly-educated student population, the move online has triggered mixed emotions.
“It has been really exhausting to keep up with the unexpected delays and changes in schedule,” Jang lamented. “Many of us students have wanted to keep studying independently at the library while school is out, but all the libraries are closed.”
South Korea is the most wired country in the world as nine out of 10 people owned a smartphone in 2018. But teachers and parents are still concerned about the unprecedented move to online learning.
South Korea’s Ministry of Education estimates that some 170,000 students lack access to smart devices, while local governments have pledged to help low-income students who need devices or internet access. At the same time, teachers in public and private schools are worried whether the switch to virtual learning is being rushed out as teachers have not been properly trained.
“I think the government and schools have done well in terms of coping with COVID-19 the best they can, but professors lack the technological training [to conduct online classes],” said Noh, who works at a private academy in Seoul and teaches speech to college-aged students. She did not want to reveal her full name as she did not have permission to speak to the media.
“Already, some students couldn’t take the class or mark their attendance because of technical issues. Others couldn’t hand in their assignment files or videos.”
Universities around the country have begun distance learning but have faced technical difficulties. South Korean news reports have described servers shutting down because of surges in traffic and have not been able to verify attendance. Some lecturers have even used video functions on KakaoTalk – the country’s most popular messaging app – to communicate with students.
Kim, a teacher at a public elementary school who requested anonymity because she did not have permission to speak to the media told Al Jazeera she was not sure how her students would fare once classes started in late April.
“I’m worried how we’re going to overcome technical issues at the elementary school level,” she said. “Young kids can’t type or figure out how to log in, and their parents can’t be with them every day, all the time.”
South Korea’s highly pressurised education system is still largely based on exam results, and students compete fiercely to enter the country’s top universities starting from when they are 15.
The most high pressure exam, the “Suneung” or CSAT, has so far been postponed by two weeks to December 3, but teachers such as Noh and Kim are worried about whether digital learning can make up for the hours lost due to school closures.
“When I compare people taking classes online versus face-to-face, I am sure those taking online classes are naturally less focused,” Noh said. “They turn on the video and multitask, doing something else. You lose that face-to-face participation, and it is definitely less efficient.
“I’m worried about freshmen and seniors [in university],” Noh added. “Freshmen can’t take their courses in-person, so I worry about them missing some fundamentals. For seniors, I am not sure how they can possibly get a good score on their exams, which is important for getting a job after graduation, when they are missing in-person studies.”
For younger children, their academic future seems even more uncertain.
Kim is concerned that online classes are less effective than face-to-face lessons and then there is the social aspect of school
“Studying isn’t the only thing that students do at school,” she said. “We teach kids how to act as members of society, and we socialise them through various activities. We don’t just have them learning from textbooks.”
At the same time, even with the virus seemingly in retreat, many parents are reluctant to put their children back in school again.
A recent government survey suggested that only 66 percent of parents supported the idea of online classes, while others were worried about their kids’ health when schools do eventually restart.
“I absolutely will not send my children back right away. I will wait longer to see how everyone is doing first,” said La Dale Johnson, a parent of two from Washington, DC, who now lives in Daegu, the city where South Korea’s outbreak started.
“I have no idea what [social distancing] other families are abiding by, and I don’t want to put my kids at risk.”
Mitch S Shin contributed to this report.