Testing time: South Korean students take exam with virus precautions

Worshippers offer prayers for relatives and loved ones on the eve of the annual ‘suneung’ college entrance exams, at the Jogye Buddhist temple in Seoul on December 2, 2020. (Photo by Ed JONES / AFP)

SEOUL, South Korea  – South Korea falls into hush mode on Thursday as hundreds of thousands of students sit the high-stakes national university entrance exam, with the added tension of strict anti-coronavirus measures.

Success in the day-long test — which teenagers spend years preparing for — can mean a place in one of the elite colleges seen as key to future careers, incomes, and even marriage prospects.

Adding to the pressure is the coronavirus epidemic, which both delayed and disrupted the school year in the South, forcing all classes online for a time.

The country brought its outbreak broadly under control with its “trace, test and treat” approach, but in recent weeks has seen new infections jump from around 100 a day to more than 500.

By global standards the figure remains extremely low but the rise has alarmed authorities, who have tightened social distancing measures.

The exam itself is a particular concern, with nearly 500,000 pupils gathering in test centres across the country.

Plastic see-through dividers have been set up on each desk and students are required to wear facemasks throughout the test.

Students will be checked on arrival and those showing temperatures of 37.5 C or higher — or other coronavirus symptoms — will have to take the test in a separate designated area.

All were advised to refrain from gathering and talking during breaks, with exam rooms to be ventilated after each session.

The exam itself was delayed for two weeks due to the earlier disruptions to teaching, and all high schools across the country have returned to online classes for a week to try to prevent school clusters.

“It will be even more difficult and worrisome to take the exam in the coronavirus situation,” President Moon Jae-in wrote in a good luck message posted on social media. “I’d like to put warm scarves around your necks.”

South Korea pulls out all the stops to ensure the test takers are not disturbed.

Government offices, businesses and even Seoul’s stock market open an hour later than usual to reduce traffic and help the students arrive on time, with police escorts available for any running late — no admissions are allowed after the exam begins.

All take-offs and landings at South Korean airports are suspended for 35 minutes during an English listening test, when all aircraft already in the air must maintain an altitude higher than three kilometres.

The transport ministry said 89 flights were rescheduled due to the exam, including 10 international routes.

And there were no concessions for the infected: the government said 35 students who have the virus were due to take the test at the same time as their classmates, supervised by education officials at hospitals or quarantine centres.