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.
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.
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.”
This year, authorities have prioritized preventing cluster infections from inside test sites.
At the entrance of each site, supervisors