Hundreds of thousands of masked students in South Korea, including 35 confirmed COVID-19 patients, took the highly competitive university entrance exam Thursday despite a viral resurgence that forced authorities to toughen social distancing rules.
About 493,430 students were taking the one-day exam at about 1,380 sites across the nations, including hospitals and other medical facilities where the 35 virus patients and hundreds of other test-takers in self-quarantine sat separately from others, according to the Education Ministry.
The annual exams are crucial for many students in the education-obsessed country, where job prospects, social standing and even who you marry can often depend on which university you graduate from.
Education officials said authorities banned military exercises and will temporarily stop air traffic to reduce noise during English-language listening parts of Thursday’s exams, as they did in past years. Government offices and many private companies asked their employees to come in late, and the country’s stock market delayed its opening to clear roads for test-takers.
This year’s exams had been originally scheduled for November but were delayed due to the virus outbreak. Experts say on-and-off online classes have widened the gap between high achievers and low performing students due to reduced interaction with teachers, digital distractions and technical difficulties.
“If the exam had been delayed again, our kids would have felt much more psychological pressure ... I think it’s fortunate the exam is taking place now,” said Kim Sun-wha, mother of a test-taker. “I hope everyone would avoid making mistakes, do their best and get good results.”
Mothers hugged their children and patted their backs before they entered a temporary exam site set up at a high school in Seoul One shouted, “Don’t be nervous! Do Well!” and another screamed “Cheer up!”
Students are required to wear masks during the test, have their temperature taken and maintain distance from each other. Those with a fever will go to separate testing areas. There are a total of 1,383 sites, an increase of 198 from last year.
In recent days, South Korean officials have urged the public to stay home and avoid gatherings as much as possible to provide a safe environment for those taking the exams.
Park Yu-mi, an anti-virus official in Seoul, also asked companies to have at least one-third of their employees work from home.
There are worries that the nationwide exams could accelerate the viral spread in South Korea.
South Korea on Thursday reported 540 new cases, taking the total to 35,703. Last week it reimposed stringent distancing guidelines in the greater Seoul area and other places to try to suppress a spike in new infections.
Associated Press journalists Kim Tong-hyung and Kim Yong Ho contributed to this report.