SEOUL - South Korea's anti-virus measures will be put to the test as some 493,000 students take the annual make-or-break college entrance exam on Thursday (Dec 3).
The authorities are on high alert to help make the eight-hour exam as smooth and safe as possible amid concerns over a two-week surge in coronavirus infections, including clusters at cram schools for high-school seniors.
The College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT) is so important that public offices, banks and stock markets will open an hour later to ensure smooth morning traffic for students.
Among this year's test-takers are 37 Covid-19 patients in hospitals, and 430 in quarantine, who will travel by private car or ambulance to special test centres.
Health authorities said they have taken extra precautions to ensure that all students can take CSAT safely, and prevent the virus from spreading at test sites.
Strict protocols are in place at more than 1,300 test sites, such as fever checks, spaced-out desks with plastic dividers, and mandatory mask wearing.
Students who display symptoms will take the exam in a separate isolation room, with an invigilator in protective gear.
Seoul has also launched a task force to inspect some 1,800 places frequented by CSAT students, such as cram schools and Internet cafes, to ensure that anti-virus rules are followed properly.
An official from Seoul's education office told The Straits Times that one major challenge was securing more test sites and invigilators as the number of test takers per room was reduced from 28 to 24, but "fortunately, schools and teachers in Seoul have been very cooperative".
South Korean President Moon Jae-in cheered the students on, noting that "it is hard enough to prepare for CSAT, tougher and more worrisome to take the exam during the coronavirus outbreak".
He tweeted: "I'd like to put warm scarves around your necks. All of us are supporting you. Be confident. Be calm."
Despite tightening anti-virus measures such as closing saunas and banning high-risk indoor exercises such as aerobics, South Korea has yet to bring down the number of infections significantly.
The country reported 511 new cases yesterday. This brings its total to 35,163 cases, with the death toll at 526.
The surge in cases, attributed to community outbreaks nationwide, has sent jitters among CSAT takers, many of whom took to social media to voice their concerns.
One tweeted: "I've never been this nervous... I'm studying at home but I'm worried I cannot focus." Another was worried the exam, delayed from last month, would be postponed again.
Housewife Jung In-ja, whose son is taking CSAT, said this year's students are disadvantaged by disruptions caused by Covid-19.
"It has been a tough year for them. Between bouts of remote learning and in-school lessons, they have been hindered by lack of consistency and concentration," Ms Jung, 63, told ST.
Ms Park Yujin, who runs a small cram school in Seoul catering to about 20 high-school seniors, said most prefer to study with her after school hours than go home, where there are too many distractions. Only four of them had opted for online learning.
"We joke that we are afraid of Covid, but we are more afraid of failing exams," Ms Park told ST.
She said only half her students are well prepared, while the rest seem resigned to retaking the exam next year. "I feel sorry for them," she said.