By Sangmi Cha
SEOUL (Reuters) - From avoiding family members to skipping extra study at "cram schools", the coronavirus has forced nearly half a million South Korean test-takers and proctors to rethink their strategies ahead of a hyper-competitive university entrance exam this week.
The gruelling, almost eight-hour test on Thursday is seen as a life-defining event for high school seniors. A degree from a prestigious university is seen as a minimum requirement for securing one of the coveted but limited corporate jobs in Asia’s fourth-largest economy.
This year teachers, proctors and students drastically changed their study and teaching practices to try to ensure those taking the test don't ruin their chances by getting sick.
"We take caution not just in classes but also during lunch, sitting facing the walls, eating alone and not talking at all," said one teacher who will also serve as a proctor, speaking on condition of anonymity as she was not authorised to speak to the media.
After delaying the exam by two weeks, authorities have prepared 31,291 test venues nationwide for this year's exam, nearly double the number from last year to allow more social distancing.
Some venues are specialized to accommodate at least 37 students with confirmed infections, and another 430 in quarantine, deputy education minister Park Baeg-beom told a briefing on Wednesday.
All students must wear masks and will be separated by plastic screens, Park said.
For students who are suspected cases of COVID-19, proctors must wear protective equipment and collect exam papers in plastic bags and wipe them before handing over to the staff outside.
The health authorities extended the operation hours for COVID-19 testing centres until 10 p.m. on Wednesday to ensure high school students who test positive overnight get assigned the right testing venues the next day.
South Korea reported 511 new cases as of midnight Tuesday, bringing the country’s total to 35,163 with 526 deaths.
Authorities have urged students to stop attending cram schools and private lessons, and pleaded with citizens to halt all non-essential outside activity ahead of the exam.
Many students worry all the exam-day precautions might throw them off their game, or that they might catch the virus ahead of time and feel too sick to perform well.
Song Hae-in, 18, will sit the test on Thursday and said her family arranged to minimize conversation or contact and kept 2 metres (6 feet) away from her to avoid any possible infection.
"We promised not to leave our own rooms unless necessary," said Song, who worried her online classes were not enough to prepare her for the exam properly.
"We had to be extra careful of our health for the test day because of the cold weather, but the coronavirus has added more stress."
President Moon Jae-in encouraged the test-takers ahead of the exam.
"Preparations for the exam alone are not easy. I feel sorry that you have to take the test during the coronavirus situation, which makes it harder and worrisome," Moon said on Twitter.
Health authorities scrambled to prevent a potential coronavirus cluster this week after a student who attended a cram school in a Seoul neighbourhood tested positive for the virus.
Students normally go to cram schools to practice test problems for weeks ahead of the exam, but many of this year's test-takers stayed home, Jun Jin-mo, a private school desk assistant, told Reuters.
"I can’t imagine the stress this year’s students have," Jun said. "The college entrance exam itself is already a huge barrier, but now there is another barrier called the coronavirus."
(Reporting by Sangmi Cha; Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Writing by Sangmi Cha and Josh Smith; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Raju Gopalakrishnan)