Key check: South Koreans sit college examination amid COVID-19 surge | South Korea

Almost 500,000 high school students take the test with rigorous measures to contain the virus.

South Korea fell silent on Thursday as hundreds of thousands of students took the country’s national college entrance exam while the number of coronavirus cases increased, leading to new measures to contain the spread, including for candidates who passed the test.

Teens spend years preparing for the exam, which can mean a place in one of the elite colleges that are seen as keys to future careers, incomes, and even marriage prospects.

This year, the coronavirus pandemic has put the pressure on – delaying and interrupting the school year and sometimes forcing all classes online.

At the Elite Ewha Girls’ Foreign Language High School, many students arrived alone or with their test friends, and some parents seemed more nervous than their children. Tightened curbs after a wave of new cases meant that students were prohibited from cheering on their classmates at the school gates when they came to the exam.

“I’m quite relieved now that it will all be over soon,” said 18-year-old Kim Chae-eun.

“This exam is important because Korean society makes you study for this one exam all your life up to this point.”

Only the parents stood in front of the school gates because the students were prohibited from cheering on their classmates due to coronavirus restrictions [Jung Yeon-je/AFP]The annual College Scholastic Ability Test is a standardized high pressure entrance exam that can set the course for the future careers of young South Koreans [Jung Yeon-je/AFP]South Korea got its outbreak under control earlier this year with an effective system of “tracks, tests and treatments”, but new cases have resurfaced in recent weeks.

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. Authorities have warned that if the cases are not brought under control this week, measures may need to be tightened.

The country operates a five-level social distancing system, and the greater Seoul area – which is home to roughly half the country’s population – was moved to level 2 on Nov. 24 when cases began to rise.

The exam itself is of particular concern. Almost 500,000 students congregate in test centers across the country.

Students were checked on arrival and those who showed temperatures of 37.5 degrees Celsius or higher – or other coronavirus symptoms – had to take the test in a separate, dedicated area.

Clear plastic dividers were placed on each desk and students were required to wear masks throughout the test.

All candidates were advised not to gather and speak during breaks, as the exam rooms should be ventilated after each session.

Quiet please

The exam itself has been postponed for two weeks due to previous teaching disruptions as all high schools across the country returned to online classes for a week to prevent school clusters.

“It will be even more difficult and worrying to take the exam in the coronavirus situation,” wrote President Moon Jae-in in a happy message posted on social media. “I would like to put warm scarves around your neck.”

South Korea is doing everything it can to ensure test takers are not disturbed.

Worshipers offer prayers for relatives and loved ones on the eve of the annual college entrance exams at the Jogye Buddhist Temple in Seoul. The country pulled out all the stops for the high-stakes test [Ed JONES/AFP]Government offices, corporations, 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 delays – no one is allowed to enter the exam room after the test began.

In addition, all flights at South Korean airports will be suspended for 35 minutes during an English listening test, while all aircraft already in the air must maintain an altitude of more than three kilometers.

The Ministry of Transport said 89 flights were postponed due to the audit, including 10 international routes.

And there were no concessions for those infected: the government said 35 students who have the virus should take the test at the same time as their classmates in hospitals or quarantine centers and be supervised by education officials in full personal protective equipment.

A government demonstration video showed that everything they used – from pencils to nameplates marking their desks – would later be disposed of as biohazard.

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