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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Behind screens and in hospitals, South Korea students sit college exam amid coronavirus

SEOUL (Reuters) – Nearly half a million South Korean students took university entrance exams on Thursday, with COVID-19 students sitting in hospital and others separated by transparent screens.

South Korea is battling a third wave of coronavirus infections and authorities have taken strict steps to ensure all students can safely take the test, deemed a life-defining event for high school seniors to win a degree that could help land a good job.

Police and school officials guarded some 31,000 test venues across the country, which in normal years are usually filled with praying parents and cheering squads distributing hot drinks and snacks.

“It’s my second test, and I just wanted to get it done despite the risks of contracting the coronavirus. That’s all I was thinking about coming here,” Jeon Young-jin, 19, told Reuters in front of a test venue in Seoul.

Of the 491,000 applicants, 45 confirmed COVID-19 patients sat for the test at designated hospitals, while special rooms were provided to help another 616 who were in self-isolation. Almost 65,000 did not show up, marking the highest-ever absence rate at 13.2%, the education ministry said.

Proctors for the confirmed and suspected cases were required to wear protective equipment and collect exam papers in plastic bags and wipe them before handing over to the staff outside.

At a high school in central Seoul, students lined up for temperature checks and disinfection before entering the venue, and transparent barriers were installed at all desks, according to video released by the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education.

Won Seon-hun, father of a high school senior, said he had not even had a meal with his son over the past week though he minimised outside activity due to coronavirus concerns.

“My wife bought all the groceries online, and I never went out except for work – no friends’ gatherings, just staying home,” Won said after sending off his son.

The test is a major event in South Korea, with businesses and the stock market opening later than usual to reduce traffic for test-takers, while flights from airports are suspended for a brief period during a language listening test.

The annual exam came as South Korea grapples with a resurgence of coronavirus outbreaks, with the number of daily cases hovering around 500 over the past couple of weeks, a level not seen since March.

The government has tightened social distancing curbs, and declared a two-week special anti-virus period ahead of the exam.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) reported 540 new cases on Friday, including 516 domestic infections and 24 imported.

Authorities were vigilant as more than 81% of the locally transmitted infections, or 419, were from the capital Seoul and surrounding areas, a record high since South Korea confirmed its first case in January, KDCA data showed.

The country’s total tally rose to 35,703, with 529 deaths.

Reporting by Hyonhee Shin, Soohyun Mah, Daewoung Kim and Minwoo Park; Editing by Michael Perry and Angus MacSwan

S

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Key test: South Koreans sit university exam amid COVID-19 surge | South Korea

Nearly 500,000 high school students are sitting the test with stringent measures imposed to curb the virus.

South Korea fell quiet on Thursday as hundreds of thousands of students sat for the country’s high-stakes national university entrance exam amid a surge in coronavirus cases that has prompted new measures to curb its spread, including for candidates sitting the test.

Teenagers spend years preparing for the exam, which can mean a place in one of the elite colleges that are seen as key to future careers, incomes and even marriage prospects.

This year, the coronavirus pandemic has added to the pressure – delaying and disrupting the school year and at times forcing all classes online.

At the elite Ewha Girls’ Foreign Language High School many students arrived on their own or with their test-taking friends and some parents seemed more nervous than their children. Tightened curbs following a wave of new cases meant students were banned from cheering on their classmates at the school gates as they arrived for the exam.

“I’m actually quite relieved now that it’s all going to be over soon,” said 18-year-old Kim Chae-eun.

“This exam is important because Korean society makes you study your whole life up till this point for this one exam.”

Only parents were at the school gates because students were banned from cheering on their classmates because of coronavirus restrictions [Jung Yeon-je/AFP]
The annual College Scholastic Ability Test, is a high-pressure standardised entrance exam, that can set the course for young South Koreans’ future careers [Jung Yeon-je/AFP]

South Korea brought its outbreak under control earlier in the year with an effective system of  “trace, test and treat”, but in recent weeks new cases have surged again.

On Thursday, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) announced 540 new cases, bringing the country’s total caseload to 35,703, and the authorities have warned measures might need to be tightened further if cases are not brought under control this week.

The country operates a five-tier social-distancing system and greater Seoul – home to approximately half the country’s population – was put on Level 2 on November 24 as cases began to rise.

The exam itself is a particular concern, with nearly 500,000 pupils gathering in test centres across the country.

Students were checked on arrival and those showing temperatures of 37.5 Celsius (99.5 Fahrenheit) or higher – or other coronavirus symptoms – had to take the test in a separate, designated area.

Plastic see-through dividers were set up on each desk and students were required to wear masks throughout the test.

All candidates were advised to refrain from gathering and talking during breaks, with exam rooms to be ventilated after each session.

Quiet, please

The exam itself was delayed for two weeks due to the earlier disruptions to teaching, as all high schools across the country returned to online classes for a week to try and prevent school clusters.

“It will be even more difficult and worrisome to take the exam in the coronavirus

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The Latest: Young S. Koreans taking crucial university exam

A student checks the time as others wait for the start of the annual college entrance examination amid the coronavirus pandemic at an exam hall in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. South Korean officials are urging people to remain at home if possible and cancel gatherings as about half a million students prepare for a crucial national college exam.

A student checks the time as others wait for the start of the annual college entrance examination amid the coronavirus pandemic at an exam hall in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. South Korean officials are urging people to remain at home if possible and cancel gatherings as about half a million students prepare for a crucial national college exam.

AP

SEOUL, South Korea — Hundreds of thousands of masked students in South Korea, including 35 COVID-19 patients, are taking the country’s highly competitive university entrance exam despite a viral resurgence that has forced authorities to toughen social distancing rules.

The Education Ministry says about 493,430 students began taking the one-day test at about 1,380 test sites across South Korea on Thursday. It says the test sites include hospitals and other medical facilities where the 35 virus patients and hundreds of others placed under self-quarantine will take the exam.

The annual test is a crucial step for many students’ lives in the education-obsessed country. The university from which a South Korean graduates significantly affects job prospects, social standings and even marriage partners.

This year’s test was originally scheduled for November but was delayed due to the virus outbreak.

___

THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:

— U.K. approves Pfizer coronavirus vaccine for emergency use, puts Britain on track to start vaccinations soon

— International Red Cross seeks equitable access to vaccines

— Russia and Germany hit record numbers of daily coronavirus deaths

— Tokyo Olympic fans from abroad may have health tracked by app

___

Follow AP’s coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

___

HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:

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ISTANBUL — Turkey’s health minister has announced a plan for vaccinations starting with an experimental inactivated vaccine later in December to combat the COVID-19 pandemic amid a surge in infections and deaths.

Minister Fahrettin Koca had previously announced an agreement with Chinese biopharmaceutical company Sinovac for 50 million doses of CoronaVac, with the first shipment to arrive after Dec. 11. The minister said early-use authorization would be granted after Turkish labs confirm the vaccine’s safety.

“If developments continue positively as we expect, Turkey would be among the first countries in the world to begin vaccinations in the early phase,” Koca said Thursday.

Health care workers, citizens above 65 and people living in care homes will be the first groups to be vaccinated. Next will be essential workers and people above 50 with at least one chronic disease. Third will be people younger than 50 with at least one chronic illness, young adults and other workers would be vaccinated. The fourth and final phase will be for the rest of the population. Turkey’s president has said the vaccine will be administered free of charge.

In November, The Lancet published a study about the efficacy of Sinovac’s vaccine, saying efficacy was determined to be moderate.

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NEW DELHI — India is reporting less than 40,000 new daily coronavirus cases for a fourth straight day as it awaits a vaccine rollout for its vast

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Young S. Koreans taking crucial university exam

SEOUL, South Korea — Hundreds of thousands of masked students in South Korea, including 35 COVID-19 patients, are taking the country’s highly competitive university entrance exam despite a viral resurgence that has forced authorities to toughen social distancing rules.



A student checks the time as others wait for the start of the annual college entrance examination amid the coronavirus pandemic at an exam hall in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. South Korean officials are urging people to remain at home if possible and cancel gatherings as about half a million students prepare for a crucial national college exam. (Kim Hong-Ji/Pool Photo via AP)


© Provided by Associated Press
A student checks the time as others wait for the start of the annual college entrance examination amid the coronavirus pandemic at an exam hall in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. South Korean officials are urging people to remain at home if possible and cancel gatherings as about half a million students prepare for a crucial national college exam. (Kim Hong-Ji/Pool Photo via AP)

The Education Ministry says about 493,430 students began taking the one-day test at about 1,380 test sites across South Korea on Thursday. It says the test sites include hospitals and other medical facilities where the 35 virus patients and hundreds of others placed under self-quarantine will take the exam.



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, Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. Hundreds of thousands of masked students in South Korea, including dozens of confirmed COVID-19 patients, took the highly competitive university entrance exam Thursday despite a viral resurgence that forced authorities to toughen social distancing rules. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)


© Provided by Associated Press
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, Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. Hundreds of thousands of masked students in South Korea, including dozens of confirmed COVID-19 patients, took the highly competitive university entrance exam Thursday despite a viral resurgence that forced authorities to toughen social distancing rules. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

The annual test is a crucial step for many students’ lives in the education-obsessed country. The university from which a South Korean graduates significantly affects job prospects, social standings and even marriage partners.



People wear face masks but stand close together as they wait for a subway train in Frankfurt, Germany, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)


© Provided by Associated Press
People wear face masks but stand close together as they wait for a subway train in Frankfurt, Germany, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

This year’s test was originally scheduled for November but was delayed due to the virus outbreak.

___

THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:

— U.K. approves Pfizer coronavirus vaccine for emergency use, puts Britain on track to start vaccinations soon

— International Red Cross seeks equitable access to vaccines

— Russia and Germany hit record numbers of daily coronavirus deaths

— Tokyo Olympic fans from abroad may have health tracked by app

___

Follow AP’s coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak



Healthcare workers protest coronavirus pandemic working conditions at Sunrise hospital Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)


© Provided by Associated Press
Healthcare workers protest coronavirus pandemic working conditions at Sunrise hospital Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

___

HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:



FILE - In this Nov. 16, 2020, file photo, student nurse Ryan Eachus collects forms as cars line up for COVID-19 testing at a testing site set at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa, Calif. California reported more than 20,000 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020, shattering the previous record of 18,350 cases just a week ago. Overall, California has reported more than 1.2 million COVID-19 cases and more than 19,300 deaths. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)


© Provided by Associated Press
FILE – In this Nov. 16, 2020, file photo, student nurse Ryan Eachus collects forms as cars line up for COVID-19 testing at a testing site set at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa, Calif. California reported more than 20,000 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020, shattering the previous record of 18,350 cases just a week ago. Overall, California has reported more than 1.2 million COVID-19 cases and more than 19,300 deaths. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

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ISTANBUL — Turkey’s health minister has announced a plan for vaccinations

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The College-Entrance Exam Is 9 Hours Long. Covid-19 Made It Harder.

SEOUL, South Korea — 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.

“Exam-takers and their parents, who have been supporting them, have had a tougher time this year than ever because of Covid-19,” said Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun, referring to how the pandemic has upended school life. “We must do everything we can to make sure that the students take their exam safely, and prepare for any

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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.

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

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South Korea holds high-stakes college exam amid COVID-19

For eight hushed hours Thursday, a second-floor hospital room at the Mokpo City Medical Center at the southwestern tip of South Korea will be transformed into a test center — not for the coronavirus, but for admission to college.

Five hospital beds have been wheeled out, making way for a lone school desk. Nurses clad head-to-toe in white protective suits, goggles and masks will take turns serving as proctors. At the center of it all will be an 18-year-old high school senior with the coronavirus, taking the most important exam of her lifetime.

South Korea is forging ahead with its annual nationwide college entrance exam, despite unease over rising coronavirus infection rates. Nearly half a million students are set to take the test Thursday as the rest of the country grapples with a third wave of COVID-19 cases, with daily infections hovering around 500 in recent weeks.

In this hyper-competitive society where college admission is seen as predetermining many facets of one’s life, including jobs, income and social status, the exam is a tense affair even in a typical year. Companies delay their commute so students can get to test centers on time, the stock market pushes back its opening bell by an hour, and planes stop taking off so as to not interfere with listening-comprehension sections.

Add to the mix a raging pandemic, and you have a nation on edge about whether the test is putting students, their families and the entire country at risk and whether the seniors will get a fair shot at the high-stakes exam. The coronavirus has wreaked havoc on their academic calendars and caused outbreaks in several of the country’s myriad cram schools, where students spend long hours in test prep.

“It’s such a big turning point in life. How you do on this exam really changes your future,” said Yang, a 20-year-old test taker who asked to be identified only by her last name. “The psychological pressure is immense.”

A worker disinfects a test center as a coronavirus precaution for the upcoming college entrance exams in Seoul.

A worker disinfects a test center as a coronavirus precaution for the upcoming college entrance exams in Seoul.

(Ahn Young-joon / Associated Press)

Among those taking the exam Thursday will be 35 students who have tested positive for the coronavirus, as well as an additional 387 who are being required to isolate after coming into contact with a known patient, according to the Ministry of Education. They will take the exam at two dozen hospitals around the country, including the one in Mokpo, or separate test centers for those in quarantine, with no more than four students per room, officials said.

Yang, who is taking the annual test a third time for a shot at a higher-ranked university than the one she got into last year, recalled how nerve-racking the test day was in her first two attempts. She said she couldn’t imagine having to take it in a hospital room.

“This is an unprecedented situation for the students, the schools, the parents. Everyone is anxious,” she said.

High school seniors aren’t the only

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