Gov’t to expand in-person classes this month amid concerns about education gap

SEOUL-- Many South Korean students were found to have fallen behind in Korean, math and English, research showed Wednesday, confirming pandemic learning loss amid yearlong remote learning.

The Ministry of Education unveiled the results of the educational achievement research, conducted together with the Korea Institute of Curriculum and Evaluation in November for around 3 percent of the country's high school second graders and middle school seniors.

The results were the first official confirmation that the country's education system was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic to a point where children's academic achievements were negatively affected.

The percentage of mid-performers and above among middle school seniors fell to 75.4 percent last year from 82.9 percent in 2019 in Korean language and to 63.9 percent from 72.6 percent in English.

Among high school sophomores, the figure also fell to 69.8 percent from 72.6 percent in Korean language.

Students who perform below the basic level expanded in both groups in three subjects, except for the math category of middle school seniors.

Another finding is that male students lag behind their female counterparts in all subjects. In Korean language, for example, the percentage of mid-level or above performers was 60.6 percent among male students, while the figure was 79.5 percent among female students.

"Pandemic learning loss was real and the ministry is taking it very seriously," the ministry said, adding that lack of in-person interactions and stimulation, as well as supervision, was blamed for the widening learning and performance gap.

Jolted by the findings, the ministry announced it has decided to expand in-person instruction for middle school students in the greater Seoul area by easing rules on the attendance cap.

Currently, the capital area, which includes Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi Province, is under Level 2 that requires schools to implement an attendance cap at one-third of the student body. The attendance rate of middle schools is 48.3 percent, far lower than 67.7 percent of elementary schools and 67.2 percent of high schools.

Staring June 14, the cap will be relaxed to two-thirds in order to bring more students into classrooms. Vocational schools will be exempt from the attendance cap requirements up until Level 2 to allow students more on-site training.

"Given the virus conditions that are relatively better than those of other major countries, we will push the expansion of in-person learning more aggressively, with an aim to fully reopen schools in the second half," the ministry said, adding that it will announce a phased reopening plan for the second half within this month.

Bringing students back in school buildings full time is in line with a global trend amid easing virus transmissions and vaccination efforts, and is a vital step to return to normal, it said.

"Online classes can only go so far and cannot fully replace in-person instruction," Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae said during a briefing. "We need to focus resources on expanding in-person classes to address the learning gap."

The ministry aims to vaccinate teachers, school officials and high school seniors during the summer vacation, and plans to expand preemptive polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing in schools across the country.

Yoo also hinted that infection clusters at schools will not discourage the ministry from forging ahead with full-pledged in-person schooling in the second half.

"We will analyze each case and intensify the antivirus campaign before the full reopening" so that students, parents and teachers can be more vigilant against the coronavirus, she said.

Recently more than 30 infection cases have been confirmed at a high school in northern Seoul. Most of them are asymptomatic, according to the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education. The school will remain online until June 14.

Source: Yonhap News Agency

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