Seoul suspends in-person classes amid pandemic fears

Seoul schools will go back to remote learning starting on Wednesday as health officials struggle to contain a COVID-19 outbreak. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI
Seoul schools will go back to remote learning starting on Wednesday as health officials struggle to contain a COVID-19 outbreak. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI

SEOUL, Aug. 25 (UPI) -- Students in the greater Seoul metropolitan area will return to remote learning on Wednesday, as South Korea struggles to contain a surge in COVID-19 cases centered around the capital city.

The move was announced Tuesday by the Ministry of Education in a statement that said "more pre-emptive and intensive measures are needed for schools in the metropolitan area in order to prevent the further spread of infectious disease."


According to the ministry, 150 students and 43 faculty members in the Seoul area have tested positive for COVID-19 during the current outbreak, which began in the middle of August and has placed health authorities on high alert.

The suspension of in-person classes will be in effect until Sept. 11. The order applies to all grade levels except final-year high school students, who are preparing to take South Korea's grueling, once-a-year college entrance exam in December.


After Sept. 11, the suspension "will be reviewed in connection with the social distancing stage of the quarantine authorities based on the spread of the disease and the level of risk," the education ministry said, leaving open the possibility it would be extended.

After daily local infections had dwindled to single digits earlier this month, South Korea has seen a surge in new cases centered around the greater Seoul area, driven by a large cluster at a church in northern Seoul and further spread by an anti-government rally held on Aug. 15.

South Korea reported 280 new infections on Tuesday, a drop from a recent high of 397 on Sunday.

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Health officials last week tightened social distancing guidelines in the Seoul metropolitan area, moving to Level 2 on a three-tier scale, prohibiting indoor gatherings of more than 50 people and outdoor gatherings of more than 100.

Public facilities and high-risk locations such as nightlife venues have had to shut down, while professional sports leagues have returned to playing games in empty stadiums. In-person religious services have also been temporarily halted.

On Sunday, the government extended the Level 2 guidelines to the entire country.

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Health officials were hesitant on Tuesday to attribute the falling numbers of new infections to the enhanced distancing protocols yet.


"We are very much concerned about this outbreak continuing on," Yoon Tae-ho, a senior health ministry official, said at a Tuesday briefing. "Despite the fact that we have a slight decrease in the number of patients compared to the weekend, we are still monitoring the situation to determine if the social distancing measures have yielded results."

Over the past 12 days, South Korea has seen 3,175 new cases, with the main cluster of infections concentrated at the Sarang Jeil Presbyterian Church in northern Seoul. As of Tuesday afternoon, some 915 confirmed cases have been linked to the church, which is led by right-wing pastor the Rev. Jun Kwang-hoon, an outspoken critic of the administration of President Moon Jae-in.

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A number of secondary clusters have sprung up around schools, office buildings, apartment complexes, hospitals and restaurants.

At least 176 patients have also been connected to an Aug. 15 anti-government rally, where Jun spoke and claimed that the government has "terrorized" his church with the virus. The church has been accused of impeding the epidemiological investigation by providing false information on its gatherings and providing inaccurate membership lists to officials.

The government filed charges last week against Jun, who has tested positive for COVID-19, for obstructing their investigation and for defying a self-isolation order by participating in the rally.


Health officials have warned that they may next raise distancing guidelines to Level 3, which would ban all gatherings of more than 10 people. Seoul has prohibited any rallies or demonstrations with more than 10 participants, and on Monday mandated the wearing of face masks in public at all times, except when eating or drinking.

South Korea's total number of COVID-19 cases rose to 17,945 on Tuesday, while deaths increased by one to 310, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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