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South Korea Delays Reopening Schools As Coronavirus Cases Resurge

A person sprays disinfectant at a high school amid the coronavirus outbreak on Monday, in Seoul, South Korea.
A person sprays disinfectant at a high school amid the coronavirus outbreak on Monday, in Seoul, South Korea.

South Korea has delayed reopening schools another week as dozens of new coronavirus cases linked to nightclubs in Seoul continue to emerge daily. Since a clubgoer tested positive last Wednesday, 102 infection cases from the cluster have been confirmed.

The country had prepared to start on-site classes this Wednesday in what would be another milestone in South Korea's steady recovery. New daily infections had stayed close to zero for days as the country eased social distancing restrictions last week and opened public museums and libraries for the first time in over 70 days.

The spring semester, which normally starts in early March, had been delayed four times until it began online about a month ago.

To finally greet students in person, schools and teachers disinfected and rearranged desks and checked their stockpile of face masks and hand sanitizer. They set up an isolated waiting area for suspected patients and installed thermal cameras and partitions. The Education Ministry's guidelines even instructed schools to keep one-third of windows open when the air conditioner is on.

But the nightclub cluster, detected just a week before the first day of classes, stirred fear among parents and education authorities despite all the careful preparations. More than 190,000 people signed a presidential petition urging the school reopening to be postponed further. Education superintendents of Seoul and the surrounding Gyeonggi province, where most of the related cases are, publicly proposed the government revise its plan.

The government quickly reinstated the order enforcing disease prevention restrictions on bars and nightclubs but remained cautious. Vice Health Minister Kim Ganglip said in a news briefing Friday that it's "too early" to discuss an additional delay and said, "Sporadic infections can continue to occur, and we are taking the risk to return to our everyday lives."

Health authorities also tried to reassure the public that the tried-and-true methods of testing and contact tracing can rein in the new wave of infections. "Even though COVID-19 is difficult to handle, our citizens have experienced that it can be controlled," Jeong Eun-kyeong, the director of Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Friday.

But rising case numbers, including secondary infections, and fresh challenges posed by the new cluster pushed the government to recalculate risks.

Announcing the delay on Monday, Vice Education Minister Park Baek-beom voiced concerns about the prospect of controlling the outbreak and said student safety must be top priority. Students will have to stay home for one more week with extended online classes.

The new case cluster revived fear and frustration, suggesting a long, zigzagging path forward.

In a televised speech on Sunday, President Moon Jae-in urged citizens not to lower their guard and said, "It's not over until it's over."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.