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Coronavirus

South Korea college exam puts students and COVID protocols to test

490,000 high schoolers, including virus patients, to determine their futures

SEOUL -- Were it not for South Korea's latest wave of COVID-19, Choi would have caught up with his old high school classmates in Seoul recently for an annual dinner. Instead, the senior accountant and his buddies are lying low as a new generation of high school seniors sits for the national college entrance exam on Thursday.

"I'm sorry I can't see my friends," Choi said after the government tightened social distancing rules in the capital area last week, including a curfew on restaurants. "We're counting on it next time."

For now, Choi and most of the country seem to be holding their breath as roughly 490,000 students gather at 1,380 testing sites nationwide. For many of them, the College Scholastic Ability Test -- known as Suneung in Korean -- will be the biggest moment of their young lives.

The exam determines where students will be able to attend college. And the name of their school, in turn, will determine their job prospects and social status in this education-obsessed country.

The pressure is intense at the best of times, let alone during a pandemic.

South Korea is in the grips of a third rush of infections. The country reported 511 new cases on Wednesday, up from 451 the previous day, bringing the total to 35,163. To control the outbreak, the government raised its social distancing rules to Level 2 in greater Seoul last week, banning trips to the gym or sauna as well as year-end banquets at hotels.

The government strongly urged people to cancel dinners and private meetings with 10 or more participants -- a warning Choi heeded -- at least until the end of the year. "We need to stop for a while," Kwon Jun-wook, head of the National Institute of Health, said in a media briefing on Tuesday, suggesting there should be "no more meetings in 2020."

But while parties and business meetings might be on hold, officials have gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure the Suneung show goes on. The test, conducted on a single day, is considered so crucial that even actual COVID-19 patients are taking it.

Thirty-seven coronavirus patients were expected to sit for the exam at 25 hospitals and four treatment centers across the country.

Women pray for students taking the college entrance exam at a Buddhist temple in Seoul on Dec. 2.   © Reuters

There are also 430 quarantined students who cannot afford to miss it, either. The Education Ministry has set up 583 separate classrooms to accommodate such individuals, who will be whisked to their test locations by ambulance.

All students are required to wear masks and be separated by plastic barriers. Reports say additional special protocols will be followed for individuals suspected of having COVID-19, such as collecting their tests in plastic bags.

In a normal year, junior students would gather at the gates of the test sites to cheer on the seniors with hot beverages and cookies. This tradition has been banned.

Test takers were asked to bring their own water, and they are required to eat lunch alone at their desks. If anyone feels unwell, they should report it to their test supervisor, who will direct them to a different classroom. Students must observe social distancing rules when using the restroom, and after they hand in their tests, they are advised to go home separately.

The end of Thursday's roughly eight-hour exam will be only the beginning of a major challenge for South Korea's virus fighters.

The government says the entire month of December is a critical period for stopping the spread, since colleges and universities will be hosting their own interviews and written tests. Many of the institutions are in the Seoul area, and officials worry they could spawn new COVID-19 clusters.

"Students from all over the country are expected to come to colleges in greater Seoul in the first and second weeks of December," Vice Education Minister Park Baek-beom told reporters on Wednesday. "We cannot rule out that they become new epicenters, spreading the virus nationwide."

Health workers disinfect desks as a precaution against COVID-19 in Seoul on Dec. 1, ahead of the national exam.   © AP

There had been some debate about suspending the exam, but the government decided to forge ahead. President Moon Jae-in has suggested that if the test is held safely, South Korea will once again be held up as an international model for controlling COVID-19, as it was earlier this year.

"The whole world is paying attention" to the Suneung, Moon tweeted on Monday. "Most advanced countries canceled or suspended their national tests. If we can make it safe, our excellence in public health will shine more."

In response to Moon's tweet, one apparent test taker complained that it "does not make sense" to hold it now. "Please delay the Suneung for two or three weeks," the user wrote.

The coming weeks will test the wisdom of the move. The stakes are high not only for thousands of students but also for the government.

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