SEOUL -- Armed with face masks and hand sanitizer, high school seniors across South Korea are heading back to school Wednesday, the first public school students in the country to resume face-to-face classes, and some of the first in Asia.
The threat of the coronavirus pandemic had prompted the Ministry of Education to postpone the start of the academic year five times.
The latest delay came on May 11 as the country grappled with an outbreak linked to clubgoers in Seoul's central district of Itaewon. That cluster infection, which has led to 187 COVID-19 cases nationwide as of Tuesday -- among them a private academy teacher who spread the virus to at least 10 pupils -- has many students and their parents worried about community transmission at school.
According to data from the education ministry, 41 public school staff, including teachers, went to clubs involved in the outbreak; some underage students were also clubbing in the area.
"I really don't want to go to school. I'm so scared," said Ryu Jin, a high school senior in Uiwang, near Seoul. "It's so scary that you don't know who might catch COVID-19 and come to school with it."
As of Tuesday, more than 235,000 people had visited the presidential website to call for a review of the school reopening schedule. President Moon Jae-in has yet to respond to the petition, which was launched at the end of April. But in a Facebook post on Sunday, he said the Itaewon outbreak appears to be contained, thanks to the public's cooperation with the country's quarantine system.
South Korea announced 13 new infections Tuesday, seven of them associated with the nightclubs, bringing the nationwide total to 11,078. With the outbreak apparently slowing, quarantine officials said at a briefing on Sunday that they will carry on with the country's loosened social distancing measures, called "everyday life quarantine," which began May 6.
Officials added that given the country's academic timeline, the Ministry of Education cannot put off the start of school any longer. High school seniors are scheduled to take the country's highly competitive university entrance exams on Dec. 3, two weeks later than usual.
"We cannot let the 11 years of preparation by our students be in vain due to the COVID-19 outbreak," said Vice Minister Park Baeg-beom.
Ryu, who had been attending online classes since early April, admits that she feels less focused studying at home, but she believes public safety should take priority over seniors' test preparations and other academic needs.
The Education Ministry "says we're starting school for the college entrance exam, but if we get COVID-19 at school, we're really doomed," she said. "As a test-taker, I thought a lot about which [decision] is right. When I think about the individual, it is right for me to think about the entrance exam, but if I think about the whole picture, I really don't think it's right to have classes at school."
Ryu added that she won't feel comfortable attending in-person classes until a vaccine is developed.
Hwang So-yoon, another high school senior in Suwon, says she has mixed feelings about being back at school. On the one hand, she is happy to be regaining some normalcy in her life.
"I was looking at my phone all day while waiting for online classes. Face-to-face classes free me from my phone addiction. I'm really happy about that! And I can see my friends for the first time in [a long time]. It's so exciting!" Hwang said.
Still, she is worried about the possible risks of being with her peers again. "I'm afraid I could infect my parents after coming home from school. Plus, I'm afraid I'll become an asymptomatic infector, [which] is dangerous," she said.
At school, students like Ryu and Hwang are required to wear masks at all times except during lunch. They must also disinfect their desks, undergo temperature checks and keep their distance from other students and teachers. Schools have installed thermal temperature cameras, are asked to conduct regular ventilation, and are offered various options for dividing classes into smaller groups.
Younger grades are scheduled to return to school in phases, between May 27 and June 8. After high school seniors, the youngest students, for whom face-to-face teaching is most important, will be the first to head back to class.
Similar calculations are being worked out elsewhere in Asia, as education officials determine how to resume classroom instruction while protecting students' health.
In China, secondary school students in major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, and the original epicenter of COVID-19, Hubei Province, have been attending classes since April 27. Students are required to wear masks and show proof of their health by scanning QR codes on their phones. In Vietnam, most schools reopened May 5. Students there had previously been asked to use masks, but the recent lifting of virus-related restrictions means they are no longer required.
Some international schools reopened on Wednesday in Hong Kong, though public schools will only start a phased resumption of classes next week, with the first set of students attending half-day sessions.
Of Japan's 47 prefectures, 16 are expected reopen high schools by the end of May; the rest have no time frame.
Other countries are looking further ahead, waiting until the summer to reopen their schools. Thailand's academic year will begin July 1, while the Philippines will open classes on Aug. 24.
Additional reporting by CK Tan, Kim Dung Tong, Andrew Sharp, Nikki Sun, Kentaro Iwamoto, Masayuki Yuda, Cliff Venzon, Lauly Li, Shaun Turton, P Prem Kumar, Erwida Maulia and Kiran Sharma