Amid pandemic nearly 500,000 South Korean students SIT for country’s university admission examinations

Nearly half a million students sat for a notoriously difficult National College Entrance Exam in South Korea on Thursday.

It is a marathon day for tests that determines the future of a teenager’s future.

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.

The tests are so significant that, in normal years, the country rolls out extreme measures to support students, like office hours 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 a greater planning was required in order to keep students safe from coronavirus.

Authorities said temperature checks before entering the testing facilities and mask wearing throughout the exam were mandatory.

Nearly 4,000 students took tests from quarantine centres and nearly 40 from hospital beds.

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.

South Korea has been relatively successful at controlling its Covid-19 outbreak, with more than 35,000 reported cases and 529 deaths.

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.

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.