S. Korea debates whether to delay start of schools after Itaewon club outbreak

Applicants looking to work at Kyungpook National University Hospital take a hiring exam while maintaining a distance of 3m from other applicants at EXCO’s exhibition hall in Daegu on May 9. (Yonhap News). Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

SEOUL, May 12, 2020, Hankyoreh. While a COVID-19 outbreak that originated in clubs in the Seoul neighborhood of Itaewon appears to be spreading around the country, the South Korean government said on May 10 that it intends to maintain its more routine approach to social distancing, Hankyoreh reported.

With students in the third year of high school scheduled to return to classes on May 13, the government plans to decide whether to adjust that schedule after canvassing public opinion and reviewing the results of contact tracing over the next few days. But public anxiety and confusion is growing as parents push for their children’s return to classes to be delayed, highlighting the need for a quick and deft response from the government.

Minister of Health and Welfare Park Neung-hoo announced during the daily briefing on Sunday that the government isn’t cancelling its so-called everyday disease prevention measures.

“Disease control cannot provide our livelihood or replace the activities that are essential for the peace and safety of our society. Considering that COVID-19 will be with us for a long time, it’s necessary to return to our daily routines despite the risk,” said Park, who also serves as first vice director of the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters (CDSCH).

“If we keep our everyday lives and economic activities halted until COVID-19 is over, the damage that our society will have to endure would be too great. Economic difficulties would mount for small business owners and vulnerable groups, students’ education would be disrupted, and childcare would place an increasing burden on parents.”

The government hasn’t decided whether to delay students’ return to school, which is supposed to begin with the third year of high school on May 13 and continue sending students back to school in several phases through June 1. “It’s too early to decide what impact the Itaewon club outbreak will have on students’ back-to-school schedule because we’re still at the beginning of contact tracing. That decision will be made soon, based on opinions canvassed at schools and the course of the outbreak over time,” Park said.

These measures appear to reflect the worries of the parents who will have to send their children to school. On online communities, mothers have been pushing for the postponement of the back-to-school schedule and expressing their concern that students will catch the disease from older siblings who visited the club and then bring it with them to school.

Infectious disease experts offered a range of opinions about when students should return to class. Hong Yun-cheol, a professor of infectious disease at Seoul National University Hospital, said that the current schedule should be maintained. Kim Woo-ju, a professor of infectious disease at Korea University Guro Hospital, said that classes should be delayed for everyone except students in their third year of high school, who need to prepare for the upcoming university admission exam. Eom Joong-sik, a professor of infectious diseases at Gachon University Gil Medical Center, said that all high school students should be included in the delay.

The educational authorities are seriously considering whether they should delay the beginning of the semester, with the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education cancelling a press conference scheduled for May 11 about how school classes would be handled.

While experts generally agree with the government’s plan to retain its everyday life quarantine approach despite the risk of COVID-19 spreading, they are calling on the government to carefully prepare to take robust action at establishments such as nightclubs that carry a high risk of transmission.

“This kind of incident can occur at any time after the transition to routine distancing. The problem is whether an effective response system was put in place prior to making that transition. Before that transition, we should have identified the timing and conditions for returning to a stricter approach to social distancing, but that didn’t happen,” said Hong Yun-cheol, a member of the government’s committee for everyday disease prevention.

“The government should have waited at the last possible moment to relax [the shutdown recommendations] for high-risk locations such as nightclubs [where routine distancing rules can’t be implemented]. The problem is that the restrictions were lifted for all establishments at the same time when we moved to routine social distancing,” said Kim Woo-ju.

“I think we ought to categorize facilities according to how closed off and crowded they are and supplement our specific guidelines according to the degree of risk,” said Jung Eun-kyeong, director of South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC).

By Lee Yu-jin

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