South Korean students have returned to school, but not without some hitches, in a possible template for other countries struggling to reopen educational facilities.
Hundreds of thousands of high school seniors across South Korea entered their schools after having their temperatures checked and rubbing their hands with sanitiser - familiar measures amid the coronavirus pandemic. Students and teachers are required to wear masks, and some schools have installed plastic partitions at each student's desk, according to the Education Ministry.
Only high school seniors returned on Wednesday. Younger students are scheduled to return to school in phased steps by June 8.
In a reminder that getting back to normality won't be easy, students in some schools near Seoul were asked to return home in the morning after two students were found to have contracted the coronavirus. Earlier Wednesday, health authorities also reported 32 new cases in South Korea for a total of 11,110, the first time the daily jump has been above 30 in more than a week.
South Korean officials say virus infections are likely to be reported eventually at some schools but express confidence they can suppress those outbreaks. "We cannot avoid initial confusion and anxiety but I believe we can overcome those as we've been calmly and swiftly handling and containing COVID-19," senior quarantine official Kwon Jun-wook told reporters Tuesday.
South Korea's caseload has been gradually waning due in large part to its aggressive tracing, testing and treating strategy and widespread public support for government-led social distancing rules. But recently, a sudden spike in new infections linked to nightclubs in Seoul's Itaewon entertainment district has posed a threat to the quarantine campaign.
There are also worries that schools could be new sources of infections. The French government said Monday that about 70 virus cases had been linked to schools, one week after a third of French schoolchildren went back to school in an easing of the coronavirus lockdown.
In South Korea, if any school has a new virus case, its students, teachers and other staff will immediately be asked to return home and authorities will disinfect school facilities, Education Ministry officials said.
South Korea's new school year was supposed to start in early March, but was delayed several times due to worries about the spread of the coronavirus. About 5.4 million students in South Korea have been taking classes online.
At Seoul's Kyungbock High School, Cho Hee-yeon, the education superintendent in the capital, used a digital ear thermometer to check students' temperatures at the main gate as another official placed liquid sanitiser on the hands of the students. Signs reading "No outsiders are allowed to enter the school premises" had been set up.
"I am here to see students returning to school while praying that there won't be any coronavirus patients among our students in 2,200 schools" in Seoul, Cho told reporters.
Students at 66 schools in Incheon, just west of Seoul, had to leave after two students at one of the schools tested positive for the virus Wednesday. The two students didn't attend classes on Wednesday, but authorities decided to temporarily close all schools in their area, according to the Incheon Metropolitan City Office of Education.
The two students had been in a karaoke room visited by another student who tested positive for the virus after taking private classes from a person who visited an Itaewon club, according to Incheon city officials.
In Anseong, just south of Seoul, authorities sent messages to all high school seniors on Wednesday morning telling them to continue to stay home because health authorities hadn't finished compiling a list of places that a newly confirmed local patient had visited. Those schools were expected to reopen on Thursday, education officials said.
Australian Associated Press