The tests are so significant that in normal years, the country takes extreme measures to support students – office hours are changed to free trips to avoid students getting stuck in traffic and flights are rescheduled to prevent aircraft engines from interfering with English listening test.
But even more planning was needed this year as South Korea tries to pass the exams while teenagers are safe from the coronavirus. Students should check their temperature before entering test facilities and wear a mask during the exam.
They even ensured that 3,775 students would take the tests from quarantine and the 35 students who achieved a positive result for Covid-19 on Tuesday would sit in hospital beds.
Exams help decide whether students get into the most prestigious colleges and what career paths they can take – some opportunities, such as medicine, are excluded from students who don’t get high enough scores.
“Every citizen feels the exam is a big national event,” Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae told CNN in an exclusive interview before the test.
South Korea has been relatively successful in controlling the Covid-19 epidemic, reporting more than 35,000 reported cases and 529 deaths.
But as students prepared for the biggest test of their high school careers, the country was hit by a third wave of cases, especially in the big city of Seoul, where half of the country’s population lives. A week before the exam, Yoo ordered high schools across the country to close and switch to online classes.
What is it like to take an exam under a coronavirus
It is remarkable that South Korea can pass its college practice tests at all – and this is followed by careful planning by the authorities.
But there is hardly an exam season, as is usually the case in South Korea.
Normally, nervous parents cheer up their children when they enter the test centers, but this year, the Seoul authorities told the parents to refrain from cheering or waiting outside the school gate on the day of the exam. Anyone who showed signs of the disease was ordered to download the test in a separate room where the supervisors wore a full hazmat suit.
The students were separated by dividers as they sat down for their test and the government set ventilation guidelines for the exam rooms. Students were prevented from using cafes or waiting rooms to minimize contact.
Public health clinics conducted tests until 10pm the day before the exam to encourage students to diagnose them if they have symptoms. Covid tests for students were treated as a priority. One high school teacher in Daejeon, a city south of Seoul, gave a positive result around 9.30pm on Wednesday. After one of their close relationships proved positive, dozens of exam workers replaced the reserve staff.
For students taking the exam, these measures make it difficult to take the already difficult exam. Seoul student Hwang Yoon-jae, who took her exam for the second time since graduating last year, said she has been studying nearly 15 hours a day for months, including weekends.
“I’m more worried (this year) because we have to get in a much worse condition,” he said. – We have to wear a mask and there is a plastic divider on the table.
What is the risk?
The authorities are taking further action for a simple reason: they are desperately trying to prevent the exam epidemic.
According to the Korea Agency for Disease Control and Prevention, unlike previous epidemics, the third wave is spreading among young people. And after Thursday’s exam, some students will travel across the country to take additional exams in colleges.
“While we’re thoroughly prepared, I’m afraid of the rare scenario where an unnoticed patient is found among the examiners and the community begins to spread,” said Education Minister Yoo. “We will do everything we can to prevent such a scenario.”
But for people, the risk was too great.
In recent weeks, some 6,000 people have signed an online petition asking for the exam to be postponed by two weeks. According to the petition, passing the exam was now “like throwing students into a pit” and questioning whether education was more important than children’s health.
In online communities where high school age members share exam tips, many students said they were worried that if they caught Covid during the exam, they could be forced into quarantine, meaning they could miss further college exams next week.
However, the government of President Moon Jae-in has firmly stated that the examination should continue.
Although Na Yeong-seo, a high school outside the satellite city outside Seoul, said the mask he wore and the large divider placed on his desk made it difficult to concentrate, he was more concerned about the uncertainty caused by the pandemic. , as the test has already been suppressed once.
“To be honest, I want to finish the exam as soon as possible. It will be dangerous, of course,” he said. “The constant delay and the endless learning that followed would be very difficult for me. I want it to end soon.”
Despite the Covid-19 risk, Hwang, a Seoul student, said he was not so worried about the infection.
“I think any student is more interested in getting a bad result on the exam than catching Covid,” he said.
CNN staff members Gawon Bae, Son So-mi and Joh Yun-ji from Seoul contributed.