Half a million South Korean students sit a college entrance exam despite rising Covid cases

South Korean students take their college entrance exam at a school amid the coronavirus pandemic on December 3, 2020 in Seoul, South Korea.

Seoul, South Korea (CNN)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.
    Students wearing face masks wait for the start of the annual college entrance examination amid the coronavirus pandemic at an exam hall in Seoul, South Korea, on December 3, 2020.
    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.
        Parents wearing face masks pray during a service to wish for their children's success on the eve of the college entrance exam at the Jogyesa Buddhist temple in Seoul, South Korea, on December 2, 2020.
        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.