SEOUL (Reuters) – For the first time since South Korea began battling its coronavirus outbreak in early 2020, all schools across the country resumed full-time in-person classes on Monday.
As the first country outside China to face a major outbreak of the virus, South Korea’s schools have seen various stages of shutdowns, remote learning, and hybrid arrangements.
Widespread testing, intensive contact tracing and tracking apps have enabled South Korea to limit the spread of the virus without the extensive lockdowns seen in other countries, but previous efforts at fully opening schools have been hampered by new waves of infections.
The fully reopened schools come as part of South Korea’s “living with COVID-19” plan, adopted after it reached its vaccination goals last month. Overall 78.8% of the population is fully vaccinated, though that number drops to 12.8% for those ages 12-17.
“It is true that many concerns remain,” South Korean education minister Yoo Eun-hye said during a visit to an elementary school in Seoul on Monday.
Even as it eased social distancing amid high vaccination rates, the country has battled some of the highest daily case numbers yet, including a record number of severe cases.
South Korea reported 2,827 new COVID-19 cases as of midnight Sunday, down slightly from nearly a week of daily totals over 3,000, including a record high 3,292 new cases on Thursday.
Most worrisome for health officials is an uptick in serious cases requiring hospitalization, which have lingered near record highs of more than 500.
Schools still can move back to remote learning or other hybrid arrangements if the coronavirus situation requires it. Precautions such as masks, dividers and other distancing measures remain in place.
“As the number of new confirmed cases increase, we ask parents and family members to pay extra attention to prevention measures,” Yoo said. “The education ministry and education offices will thoroughly check the prevention measures and will support areas in need.”
(Reporting by Josh Smith; Additional reporting by Hyunyoung Yi. Editing by Gerry Doyle)