Nearly 500,000 high school students are taking the test with strict measures imposed to curb the virus.
South Korea remained silent on Thursday as hundreds of thousands of students turned out for the country’s high-stakes national university entrance exam amid a spike in coronavirus cases that has led to new measures to curb its spread, including for candidates taking the test.
Teenagers spend years preparing for the exam, which can mean a place at one of the elite colleges seen as key to future careers, income, and even marriage prospects.
This year, the coronavirus pandemic has added to the pressure – delaying and disrupting the school year and sometimes forcing all classes online.
At Ewha Girls’ Foreign Language High School, many students arrived alone or with their friends who were taking the exams and some parents seemed more nervous than their children. Tightened restrictions following a wave of new cases have left students cheering on their classmates at the school gates as they arrive for the exam.
“I’m actually quite relieved now that it’s all over soon,” 18-year-old Kim Chae-eun said.
“This exam is important because Korean society requires you to study all your life up to this point for this exam.”
South Korea brought its outbreak under control earlier in the year with an effective “trace, test and treat” system, but in recent weeks new cases have risen again.
On Thursday, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) announced 540 new cases, bringing the total number of cases in the country to 35,703, and authorities warned that measures may need to be further tightened if the cases are not under control this week.
The country is enforcing a five-tier social distancing system and greater Seoul – home to around half of the country’s population – was put in Tier 2 on November 24 as cases began to rise.
Of particular concern is the exam itself, with nearly 500,000 students packed into test centers across the country.
Students were checked on arrival and those with temperatures of 37.5 degrees Celsius (99.5 degrees Fahrenheit) or higher – or other symptoms of coronavirus – were required to take the test in a separate, designated area.
Transparent plastic dividers were installed on each desk and students were required to wear masks throughout the test.
All candidates have been asked to refrain from congregating and talking during breaks, with exam rooms to be ventilated after each session.
The exam itself has been delayed for two weeks due to earlier teaching disruptions, as all secondary schools across the country resumed online classes for a week to try to prevent school consolidations.
“It will be even more difficult and worrisome to pass the exam in the coronavirus situation,” President Moon Jae-in wrote in a good luck message posted on social media. “I would like to put warm scarves around your neck.”
South Korea makes every effort to ensure applicants are not disturbed.
Government offices, businesses and even the Seoul Stock Exchange opened an hour later than usual to reduce traffic and help students arrive on time, and police escorts were available for any delays – no one are allowed to enter the exam room once the test has started.
In addition, all flights at South Korean airports are suspended for 35 minutes during an English listening test, while all planes already in the air must maintain an altitude above three kilometers (9,843 feet). ).
The Department for Transport said 89 flights had been postponed due to the review, including 10 international routes.
And there were no concessions for those infected: the government said 35 students infected with the virus should be tested at the same time as their classmates, in hospitals or quarantine centers and supervised by education officials in full personal protective equipment.
A government demonstration video showed that everything they used – from pencils to the name tag identifying their office – would then be disposed of as a biohazard.