SEOUL, Dec. 3 (UPI) -- It is the most stressful event in any South Korean student's high school career: the College Scholastic Ability Test, also known as Suneung, a highly competitive, once-a-year exam that is seen as a vital stepping stone for a successful future.
This year, however, anxious high school seniors faced the daunting test with an extra layer of difficulty amid a COVID-19 pandemic that has disrupted classes and is spreading in an alarming third wave.
With a slew of safety precautions in place, more than 400,000 students turned out Thursday to take the eight-hour exam, which covers Korean language, math, English, Korean history and social sciences.
At Ewha Girls' High School in downtown Seoul, one of South Korea's 1,383 test locations, bundled-up students arrived early in the frigid morning, hugging parents and siblings goodbye before trudging through school gates to have their temperatures taken by waiting staff members.
The scene was a contrast to the usual vibrant atmosphere of test day, when groups of younger students wait at school entrances holding up signs, shouting words of encouragement and handing out snacks.
In this pandemic year, such gatherings have been prohibited, and health officials discouraged parents from lingering after dropping off test-takers.
Nervous parents said preparing for the test was especially challenging for students this year, as the start of the semester was delayed and then was held with a mix of online and offline classes. Hagwons, or cram schools, also were shut down or limited due to COVID-19 precautions.
"It was very difficult for the students to study for the exam," Lee Hyoun-joo sai after dropping off her daughter. "My daughter relied on extra lectures on the Internet. The pandemic is a disadvantage for the test-takers this year, but it still depends on each student to make the most of it."
Sixteen-year-old Seo Ji-woo, who accompanied her sister to the Ewha test site in the morning, said she tried to help her older sibling prepare by bringing her macarons, her favorite treat, as she studied for the CSAT.
"She was so nervous last night and this morning," Seo said. "I just told her to do her best, not to worry and that I love her."
Inside each test classroom, students sat with plastic partitions around their desks and were forbidden from congregating and talking during breaks. Despite Thursday's near-freezing temperatures in Seoul, schools opened windows in the classrooms during breaks for ventilation.
Yoon Yon-joo, an English teacher who monitored the exam Thursday at Ewha, said the mood inside the school was noticeably different than in previous years.
"Every year, students are very anxious, but this year they are more solemn," she said. "They are being careful about their hygiene and everyone has been calm and quiet during lunchtime and recess."
Even with safety measures in place, the number of students who took the test was at its lowest since the CSAT was introduced in its current form in 1994.
More than 493,000 students registered to take the test Thursday, down 10% from the previous year. According to the Ministry of Education, the number of test-takers who showed up was only about 426,000, for a record-high 13% absentee rate.
Still, the test is seen as so vital that the government allowed even students with COVID-19 to take the exam. Thirty-five coronavirus patients and 404 people in self-quarantine took the test from hospital beds and at special test centers Thursday, education officials said.
In other ways, the CSAT proceeded as normal, with South Korea going to its usual extreme lengths to ensure the test runs smoothly.
Offices across the country opened late to keep traffic off the roads and extra trains and buses were put into service to help students get to their testing locations on time. Flights were grounded nationwide during the 35-minute English-listening portion of the exam so as not to distract test-takers.
Outside Ewha Girls' High School, police officers were stationed to control traffic and to help with any last-second emergencies. When a handful of students discovered that they had showed up at the wrong location Thursday morning, they were whisked away in police cruisers with sirens flashing to get to their correct destinations.
As the test drew to a close Thursday afternoon, health officials asked students and their families to refrain from group celebrations as South Korea tries to control a coronavirus outbreak that saw 540 new cases Thursday, some of the highest numbers since March.
"We want to recognize the test-takers for their academic hard work," health ministry spokesman Son Young-rae said at a press briefing Thursday. "But we advise them to avoid activities such as meeting with friends after the test is done or talking for a long time in an enclosed restaurant or cafe."
One student who finished the test at Ewha, Kim Chae-young, said she was looking forward to taking a break, even with COVID-19 precautions still in place.
"Because of the coronavirus, I won't go traveling or have parties with my friends yet," she said. "I'm going to self-quarantine at home now and just binge-watch all the movies and TV dramas that I've missed while studying."