SEOUL - South Korean students are set to begin the new academic year with online classes from April 9, while schools remain physically closed in a bid to curb the spread of the coronavirus that has so far infected 9,786 people and killed 163 in the country.
The reopening of schools has already been delayed to April 6 from March 2, amid fears that crowded classrooms can turn into virus breeding grounds. There are 627 cases of infections among those aged 19 years and younger.
To keep young people safe, the Education Ministry announced yesterday that schools will switch to online learning in stages from next week.
"It is necessary to boldly push for remote learning right now, to prepare for a possible prolonged pandemic," said Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae.
Students in the third and final year of middle and high school will begin classes first on April 9. Those in the first and second year of middle and high school, as well as fourth to sixth year of elementary school, will start online learning on April 16.
The youngest group - first to third graders in elementary school - will join the scheme from April 20.
Kindergartens will be closed indefinitely, while most universities have already switched to online learning.
Surveys show that most parents support keeping children home during the health crisis. A recent poll by Realmeter showed that 72 per cent of respondents felt it would be "inappropriate" for schools to reopen on April 6.
However, there is also growing concern about how e-learning can be conducted effectively, and if schools have the right equipment, technology and experienced teachers to do so.
Official data show that as many as 3,600 elementary and middle schools out of a total of 8,999, have yet to install wireless networks in classrooms that are necessary for teachers to broadcast lessons. Webcams or tablets are also needed.
Last Friday, the Education Ministry introduced a set of guidelines for virtual teaching.
This includes three types of schemes - interactive, real-time learning via video conferencing, content-based learning based on videos produced by the school for students to watch, and assignment-based learning whereby students are given projects or reports to do.
Schools are free to choose which scheme works best for them. The ministry will conduct trial runs this week.
Experts have said it remains to be seen if computer servers can support the system when dozens of students dial in at the same time. The quality of digital devices and speed of the Internet at home can also affect online learning, they added.
There is also concern if students from low income families can afford to participate in e-learning, given the cost of buying laptops and tablets, and subscribing to high speed internet.
Government data shows that three in 10 households in South Korea do not own any computers, laptops or tablets. A separate survey showed that as many as 170,000 students do not own any smart devices.
Officials said schools and local education offices have about 120,000 sets of equipment to support online learning in storage, to be loaned out if necessary.
The lack of online teaching experience is another concern, especially in schools located in rural areas.
A research paper published by the Korean Educational Development Institute showed that only 18.9 per cent of middle schools and 29.5 per cent of high schools had experience conducting online classes, as of 2018.
Online classes would also pose challenges to working parents, who may have to juggle working from home and supervising their children during lessons.
Public relations consultant Kwon Hee-sun, 43, whose only son, 10, will start Grade 4 in elementary school next week, is worried if he can stay focused facing a computer, with his classmates online instead of sitting next to him.
"I wonder how realistic and effective online learning is," said Ms Kwon, who has been working from home unless she needs to attend meetings in the office.
"It is really hard to communicate efficiently when you do conference calls instead of meeting face-to-face, and kids would miss their friends in class."
She told The Straits Times that the mother of one of her son's friends suggested gathering a few kids to attend lessons together, with mums taking turns to supervise them. This would allow the kids to interact in a safe, controlled environment, and help to alleviate the burden on parents.
"It can be better for kids to study together than to do it alone, but it still requires parents to play a role," she said, adding that there is "no perfect solution" for now.