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

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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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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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Guerin Emig: College football players and the election: ‘We’re the next generation of voices. It’s no longer acceptable to sit on the sidelines.’ | OU Sports Extra

But it still takes effort to fill out and mail in absentee ballots or stand in line at polling places. It takes some initiative.

Players, perhaps spurred by the commotion of their offseason, sound as if they have plenty of initiative.

“It’s a very important year with everything going on,” OU cornerback Tre Brown said. “If you’ve got the right to vote, you’ve got to take advantage of that right because you could be the change. Why wouldn’t you want to vote when you have that chance to make a difference?”

“That’s something as a nation we are gifted to be able to do,” Collins said. “Some people may not have it as good as us. There are a lot of things going on in the world right now, not just in the U.S. but all over the world, that we need to shine light on…

“That’s something we need to do, be a contributor to a society.”

Last spring and summer, these players contributed by lending their voices to issues that made us think about where we are, and how we can be better. Now, they are contributing by taking advantage of a constitutional right.

Just like spring and summer, we should all follow their lead.

OU linebacker Nik Bonitto commented several weeks ago about how teammates “gave me a better understanding of why voting is important and how it changes our society.”

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