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.