Half a million students are sitting South Korea’s notoriously difficult National College Entrance Exam on Thursday, a marathon day of tests that is the country’s answer to the SATs and can determine a teenager’s future.
The tests are so significant that, in normal years, the country rolls out extreme measures to support students – office hours are changed to clear roads to avoid students getting stuck in traffic and flights are rescheduled to prevent the sound of plane engines disrupting the English listening test.
But this year, even greater planning has been required, as South Korea attempts to hold the exams while keeping teenagers safe from coronavirus. Students will have their temperature checked before entering the testing facilities and will need to wear masks throughout the exam.
Arrangements were even made for 3,775 students to take the tests from quarantine, and for the 35 students who tested positive for Covid-19 as of Tuesday to sit the exam from a hospital bed.
The exams help decide whether students will make it into the most prestigious colleges and what career path they can take – some options, such as medicine, will be shut off to students who don’t get a high-enough score.
“Every citizen understands the exam to be a major national event,” Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae told CNN in an exclusive interview ahead of the test.
South Korea has been relatively successful at controlling its Covid-19 outbreak, with more than 35,000 reported cases and 529 deaths.
But as students prepared for the biggest test of their high-school career, the country has been hit by a third wave of cases, particularly in metropolitan Seoul, where half the country’s population lives. A week before the exam, Yoo ordered high schools across the country to shut and switch to online classes.
What it’s like doing an exam during coronavirus
That South Korea can hold its college placement tests at all is remarkable – and is down to careful planning by authorities.
Other countries have been forced to cancel or postpone exams due to coronavirus – the US College Board, for instance, canceled the SATs that were due to be held in May, citing student safety. The United Kingdom canceled A-levels, which determine university entrance, and students received the grades their teachers predicted for them.
But it’s hardly exam season as usual in South Korea.
Normally, nervous parents cheer their children on as they enter the testing centers, but this year, Seoul authorities told parents to refrain from cheering or waiting outside the school gate on the day of the exam. Anyone who showed sign of illness was ordered to sit the test in a separate room where invigilators wore full hazmat suits.
Students were separated by dividers as they sat their test, and the government established ventilation guidelines for exam rooms. Students were prevented from using cafeteria or waiting halls to minimize contact.
Public health clinics performed tests until 10 p.m. the day before the exam, to encourage students to get diagnosed if they had symptoms. Covid tests for students were prioritized. One high school teacher in Daejeon, a city south of Seoul, tested positive around 9.30 p.m. Wednesday. After one of his close contacts tested positive, dozens of exam workers were substituted for reserve staff.
For students taking the exam, those measures made an already difficult exam more stressful. Seoul student Hwang Yoon-jae, who was taking the exam for a second time after graduating the year before, said he had been studying close to 15 hours a day, including over weekends, for months.
“I’m more worried (this year) because we need to take the exam in much worse condition,” he said. “We need to wear masks, and there is a plastic divider on the desk.”
What is the risk?
Authorities are taking additional measures for a simple reason: they are desperate to prevent an exam-related outbreak.
Unlike earlier outbreaks, the third wave has been spreading among younger people, according to Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency. And after Thursday’s exam, some students will travel across the country to sit additional exams held by colleges.
“While we had thoroughly prepared, I’m afraid of the rare scenario where an undetected patient is found among the exam takers and begin a community spread,” Education Minister Yoo said. “We are doing all we can to prevent such a scenario.”
But for people, the risk was too great.
In recent weeks, some 6,000 people signed an online petition calling for the exam to be postponed by two weeks. The petition said holding the exam now was “like throwing students into a pit of fire” and questioned whether schooling is more important than children’s health.
In online communities where high school seniors share exam tips, many students said they were worried that if they caught Covid during the exam they could be forced to quarantine, meaning they might miss the additional college exams the following week.
But President Moon Jae-in’s government was adamant that the exam must proceed.
“If we safely hold the exam in such difficult times without excluding those infected and quarantined, the superiority of K-quarantine will shine even brighter,” Moon said in a tweet this week.
Yoo also pointed out that the exam had already been postponed by two weeks once before. She also said that South Korea had successfully held a general election in April during coronavirus, an election that saw Moon’s party reelected in a landslide – and attracted the highest turnout in nearly 30 years.
Although Na Yeong-seo, a high school senior in the satellite city outside of Seoul, said the mask she had to wear and large divider installed on her desk would make it difficult to concentrate, she was more worried about the uncertainty brought by the pandemic, given the test has already been pushed back once.
“To be honest, I would like to finish the exam as quickly as possible. Of course, it will be dangerous,” she said. “The continuous delay and the following endless studying would be very hard for me. I want it to end soon.”
Despite the Covid-19 risk, Hwang, the Seoul student, said he wasn’t that concerned about being infected.
“I think any student would be more concerned about getting a bad result on the exam than catching Covid,” he said.
CNN’s Gawon Bae, Son So-mi and Joh Yun-ji contributed reporting from Seoul.