South Korea implements intensive college entrance exam measures amid COVID-19

It’s a chilly, silent Thursday morning. Thousands of students warmly dressed in padded jackets, hasten their steps to schools which have been closed and disinfected for a week in lead-up to a momentous event in South Korea: the national college entrance exam.

a person standing in front of a window talking on a cell phone: A student wearing a face mask prays before the start of the annual college entrance examination amid the coronavirus pandemic at an exam hall in Seoul, South Korea, Dec. 3, 2020.

© Kim Hong-ji/AP
A student wearing a face mask prays before the start of the annual college entrance examination amid the coronavirus pandemic at an exam hall in Seoul, South Korea, Dec. 3, 2020.

a group of people standing next to an umbrella: Parents pray during a special service to wish for their children's success in the college entrance exams at the Jogyesa Buddhist temple in Seoul, South Korea, Dec. 3, 2020.

© Ahn Young-joon/AP
Parents pray during a special service to wish for their children’s success in the college entrance exams at the Jogyesa Buddhist temple in Seoul, South Korea, Dec. 3, 2020.

The exam, officially called the College Scholastic Ability Test, provides South Korean students a final report card for the public education they received from elementary school through high school. The results of this annual exam play a big part in determining to which university students can apply.

But this year, with COVID-19 upending traditional protocol, exam inspectors dressed in hazmat suits greet applicants with hand sanitizers and thermometers.

a group of colorful graffiti: A woman hangs on a paper note to wish for her child's success in the college entrance exams at the Jogyesa Buddhist temple in Seoul, South Korea, Dec. 3, 2020.

© Ahn Young-joon/AP
A woman hangs on a paper note to wish for her child’s success in the college entrance exams at the Jogyesa Buddhist temple in Seoul, South Korea, Dec. 3, 2020.

Before the COVID-19 outbreak, the exam day would be filled with exuberant cheering squads at the school gate, and parents handing out snacks or praying outside the school until the exam ends.

In fact, the entire nation celebrates the event. Authorities clear air traffic to make sure the exam’s listening sections are done in a silent environment. Businesses, including the stock market and public facilities, also open an hour late so students can make it to their test sites in less traffic.

(MORE: KCheering crowds greet South Korean students taking make-or-break college entrance exams)

This year, however, is different. Social distancing and a heavy focus on hygiene have replaced the celebrations.

“My daughter is taking the exam for the third time, and I am just relieved that she wasn’t diagnosed with COVID-19,” Kim Migyeong told ABC News. “Our whole family was nervous that one of us may be infected without symptoms and spread to our daughter, already exhausted with a long-term prep for examination.”

“I wish for the best, although this year high school seniors have had a hard time taking classes online and staying home to avoid COVID-19 infection,” Michelle Oh, who stood in front of Yangjae High School to send her son off to take the exam, told ABC News. “I saw on the news that confirmed patients can also take the exam, but there aren’t any alternatives for university interviews, so it’s best to avoid the virus.”

a group of people sitting at a table: Students wearing face masks wait for the start of the annual college entrance examination amid the coronavirus pandemic at an exam hall in Seoul, South Korea, Dec. 3, 2020.

© Kim Hong-ji/AP
Students wearing face masks wait for the start of the annual college entrance examination amid the coronavirus pandemic at an exam hall in Seoul, South Korea, Dec. 3, 2020.

This year, authorities have prioritized preventing cluster infections from inside test sites.

At the entrance of each site, supervisors

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The virus has made this nine-hour college entrance exam even more grueling.

Nearly a half-million South Korean high school seniors hunkered down on Thursday to take an annual university entrance exam they had been preparing for since kindergarten — a nine-hour marathon of tests that could decide their futures.

But this year, the government had to ensure the exam did not become a super-spreader event for the coronavirus.

For days, health officials in full protective gear had repeatedly disinfected 31,000 classrooms where the exam was to take place.

All students had to get their temperature taken before entering the classrooms. They sat at desks separated by plastic dividers and wore masks throughout the test.

Government-run health clinics stayed overnight to test students and screen anyone infected with the virus at the last minute. Those with a fever or sore throat were escorted to separate rooms to take their exams. At least one student showed up in full protective gear for fear of catching the coronavirus.

“I came early because I feared that I might be caught in a traffic jam,” another student, Kim Mun-jeong, told the cable channel JTBC. “I also wanted to check into the test-taking room sooner than other students to get myself familiarized with it and gain composure.”

In this education-obsessed country, it’s hard to overestimate the importance of the College Scholastic Ability Tests, or suneung, in the life of a South Korean student.

Most universities select their students based largely on the test scores of the single standardized year-end exam. Diplomas from a few top universities like Seoul National can make a huge difference when applying for jobs and promotions. Many students who fail to enter the universities they covet take the tests again and again in the following years, often living and studying in institutes with militarylike discipline.

Exam day is also a day when the country collectively wrings its hands and much of life is put on pause.

All banks, businesses and government offices delayed opening their doors by an hour to lessen road traffic. All planes were grounded and all military guns silenced for half an hour for fear they might interrupt students focused on an English listening-comprehension test. In the Jogyesa Buddhist temple in Central Seoul, parents lit candles and burned incense as they prayed for the success of their children taking the exam.

The pandemic has added new twists and an extra layer of anxiety and suspense to the grueling test. South Korea is grappling with a third wave of coronavirus infections, with health officials reporting some of the highest daily caseloads the country has seen. In the past week, the country has reported 438 to 581 new cases per day, including 540 on Thursday.

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South Korea’s university entrance exams were stressful enough. Then a pandemic arrived.

SEOUL —The biggest mission for Jo Yong-seok this week has been to keep coronavirus out of his Seoul home, where his 18-year-old son is studying 15 hours a day for the most important exam of his lifetime.

a group of people sitting at a table: South Korean students take their College Scholastic Ability Test at a school amid the coronavirus pandemic on Dec. 03, 2020 in Seoul.

© Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
South Korean students take their College Scholastic Ability Test at a school amid the coronavirus pandemic on Dec. 03, 2020 in Seoul.

On Thursday, nearly half a million students are taking the annual College Scholastic Ability Test. Known as suneung in Korean, it’s a multiple-choice standardized test similar to SATs, but with considerably higher stakes in education-obsessed South Korea.


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The eight-hour exam determines not only which university the younger Jo can attend, but also his future career opportunities, social standing and even marriage prospects. Students spend days and long evenings at expensive private cram schools preparing for the hypercompetitive exam.

Only this time, there was a pandemic.

[In South Korea, coronavirus gives kids a break from school pressures, but also traps them]

South Korea is struggling to contain a third wave of the coronavirus. The elder Jo, determined not to infect his son, has avoided seeing friends and gave up his favorite pastime of hiking. He even offered to forgo family meals and dine separately until the day of his son’s exam.

“My son has been studying all these years for this one day,” he said. “I can’t let the virus ruin it.”

In what she called a “desperate plea” a week before the exam, the country’s Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae urged the public to “entirely suspend everyday social activities” to tamp down infections.

a man standing in front of a window: A student wearing a face mask prays before the start of the annual college entrance examination in Seoul, Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020.

© Kim Hong-Ji/AP
A student wearing a face mask prays before the start of the annual college entrance examination in Seoul, Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020.

That day, South Korea reported 583 new covid-19 infections, the biggest one-day jump in eight months, with another 540 cases reported on the day of the exam.

Even during the pre-pandemic times, suneung proctors supervising the exams were banned from wearing perfume or high-heels, in case strong fragrances or the click-clack sound disturb students’ concentration.

This year, some will even be asked to don full protective gear to supervise the exam for at least 35 confirmed covid-19 patients and some 400 in quarantine. For this group, test papers are put in plastic bags and disinfected before grading.

“We pushed the beds out and brought the desks in,” said Yoon Jae-sik, spokesman for the Seoul Medical Center where five covid-19 patients are taking the test in a “negative pressure ward” designed to keep infectious germs from spreading outside.

“It’s a rather unusual setting but the patients are taking the exam in a calm manner,” he said.

At test venues, plastic dividers have been set up to separate desks, and students are required to wear masks at all times.

In previous years, suneung exam mornings kicked off with the sound of the younger students cheering for their seniors as they walked into the test center. That ritual has been banned

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South Korea’s Covid cases rise but half a million students sit for CSAT, a college entrance exam

The tests are so significant that, in normal years, the country rolls out extreme measures to support students — office hours are changed to clear roads to avoid students getting stuck in traffic and flights are rescheduled to prevent the sound of plane engines disrupting the English listening test.

But this year, even greater planning has been required, as South Korea attempts to hold the exams while keeping teenagers safe from coronavirus. Students will have their temperature checked before entering the testing facilities and will need to wear masks throughout the exam.

Arrangements were even made for 3,775 students to take the tests from quarantine, and for the 35 students who tested positive for Covid-19 as of Tuesday to sit the exam from a hospital bed.

The exams help decide whether students will make it into the most prestigious colleges and what career path they can take — some options, such as medicine, will be shut off to students who don’t get a high-enough score.

“Every citizen understands the exam to be a major national event,” Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae told CNN in an exclusive interview ahead of the test.

South Korea has been relatively successful at controlling its Covid-19 outbreak, with more than 35,000 reported cases and 529 deaths.

But as students prepared for the biggest test of their high-school career, the country has been hit by a third wave of cases, particularly in metropolitan Seoul, where half the country’s population lives. A week before the exam, Yoo ordered high schools across the country to shut and switch to online classes.

What it’s like doing an exam during coronavirus

That South Korea can hold its college placement tests at all is remarkable — and is down to careful planning by authorities.

Other countries have been forced to cancel or postpone exams due to coronavirus — the US College Board, for instance, canceled the SATs that were due to be held in May, citing student safety. The United Kingdom canceled A-levels, which determine university entrance, and students received the grades their teachers predicted for them.

But it’s hardly exam season as usual in South Korea.

Normally, nervous parents cheer their children on as they enter the testing centers, but this year, Seoul authorities told parents to refrain from cheering or waiting outside the school gate on the day of the exam. Anyone who showed sign of illness was ordered to sit the test in a separate room where invigilators wore full hazmat suits.

Parents wearing face masks pray during a service to wish for their children's success on the eve of the college entrance exam at the Jogyesa Buddhist temple in Seoul, South Korea, on December 2, 2020.

Students were separated by dividers as they sat their test, and the government established ventilation guidelines for exam rooms. Students were prevented from using cafeteria or waiting halls to minimize contact.

Public health clinics performed tests until 10 p.m. the day before the exam, to encourage students to get diagnosed if they had symptoms. Covid tests for students were prioritized. One high school teacher in Daejeon, a city south of Seoul, tested positive around 9.30 p.m. Wednesday. After one of his close contacts tested positive, dozens of

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S. Koreans take college entrance exam amid viral resurgence

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Hundreds of thousands of masked students in South Korea, including 35 confirmed COVID-19 patients, took the highly competitive university entrance exam Thursday despite a viral resurgence that forced authorities to toughen social distancing rules.

About 493,430 students were taking the one-day exam at about 1,380 sites across the nations, including hospitals and other medical facilities where the 35 virus patients and hundreds of other test-takers in self-quarantine sat separately from others, according to the Education Ministry.

The annual exams are crucial for many students in the education-obsessed country, where job prospects, social standing and even who you marry can often depend on which university you graduate from.

Education officials said authorities banned military exercises and will temporarily stop air traffic to reduce noise during English-language listening parts of Thursday’s exams, as they did in past years. Government offices and many private companies asked their employees to come in late, and the country’s stock market delayed its opening to clear roads for test-takers.

This year’s exams had been originally scheduled for November but were delayed due to the virus outbreak. Experts say on-and-off online classes have widened the gap between high achievers and low performing students due to reduced interaction with teachers, digital distractions and technical difficulties.

“If the exam had been delayed again, our kids would have felt much more psychological pressure … I think it’s fortunate the exam is taking place now,” said Kim Sun-wha, mother of a test-taker. “I hope everyone would avoid making mistakes, do their best and get good results.”

Mothers hugged their children and patted their backs before they entered a temporary exam site set up at a high school in Seoul. One shouted, “Don’t be nervous! Do Well!” and another screamed “Cheer up!”

Students are required to wear masks during the test, have their temperature taken and maintain distance from each other. Those with a fever will go to separate testing areas. There are a total of 1,383 sites, an increase of 198 from last year.

In recent days, South Korean officials have urged the public to stay home and avoid gatherings as much as possible to provide a safe environment for those taking the exams.

Park Yu-mi, an anti-virus official in Seoul, also asked companies to have at least one-third of their employees work from home.

There are worries that the nationwide exams could accelerate the viral spread in South Korea.

South Korea on Thursday reported 540 new cases, taking the total to 35,703. Last week it reimposed stringent distancing guidelines in the greater Seoul area and other places to try to suppress a spike in new infections.


Associated Press journalists Kim Tong-hyung and Kim Yong Ho contributed to this report.

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How the pandemic made China’s tough college entrance exam even more stressful — and inequitable

This year, during the pandemic, things got much worse for Chinese students, as explained in this story by Rayna Song, a journalism student at Northwestern University. She spent two months researching the story, interviewing more than 30 people. It’s a fascinating look at a college admissions process even more frenzied than the one in this country.

By Rayna Song

Eighteen-year-old Jing Lin never dreamed that a virus would completely disrupt her meticulously designed plans to ace the gaokao, China’s college entrance exam. She saw an excellent score on the test as a ticket to a top university — and a better life.

When, like 10 million other high school seniors in China, she needed to switch to online classes from early February to early April because of the national lockdown amid covid-19, she found herself at a disadvantage. Whereas her wealthier peers could hire private tutors or pay for web preparation programs, she could only study in her noisy apartment with poor Internet connection.

“During online classes, I usually studied on the balcony, because there are five people in my home, and the balcony is much quieter,” Lin said. “Late at night, I studied on the balcony as well, and the LED desk lamp provided enough lighting. On average, I spent six hours studying during daytime, and three hours after nightfall.”

After April, most Chinese high schools resumed in-person classes for the graduating class in light of the declining number of positive cases in this country with more than 1.4 billion people. Lin recently graduated from a public school in Fujian, a southern province separated from Taiwan by a 110-mile strait. In her senior year, Lin lived with her parents and her paternal grandparents in a 16th floor apartment. In the end, she got into Hainan Tropical Ocean University, located on Hainan Island, 14 miles off mainland China. She said she would have done better in the exam, if 2020 had been normal.

The year 2020 stands out in many ways. Almost every high school senior in China took two months of online classes before taking the gaokao, and the Chinese Ministry of Education extended the exam date by a month, moving the first day from June 7 to July 7.

Despite these measures, gaokao 2020 widened the gap between the haves and the have nots, as the wealthier students could afford quiet rooms in their own homes and expensive private lessons, while the less privileged students had few choices other than taking the online classes offered by their high schools.

High school seniors traditionally take this exam after one year of preparation, and unlike the SAT or ACT exams, they only get one chance to take the exam each year. If they are unsatisfied with the score obtained, then they must spend one more year in high school and retake the exam the following year. Gaokao lasts three to four days, with different subjects tested on each day.

Besides Chinese, math and English, the student has some flexibility

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