Over 500K Students, Some With COVID, Take Hours-Long College Entrance Test in South Korea

Over 500,000 South Korean students took a prestigious and competitive college entrance exam that could affect their entire lives.

The Suneung, or the College Scholastic Ability Test, is taken yearly to determine the university recent high school graduates will attend. Around 509,000 students took the test on November 18 at 1,395 sites across the nation. Some students had to take the test in hospitals or shelters. Students were required to have their temperatures taken, with students that had fevers being sent to separate testing areas.

The test comes as the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency reported 3,292 cases the same day. It marked the second straight day of the agency recording more than 3,000 across the country. Twenty-nine patients also died in the past 24 hours, with 506 others in serious condition. Sixty-eight students infected with COVID-19 took the hours-long Suneung test, while another 105 students took it in self-quarantine.

Some parents are concerned that the halt in education during the pandemic would negatively affect their students' scores on the test, which can significantly affect one's social standing in South Korea.

"[Students] weren't given proper classes [because of COVID-19] and I often saw my child worrying much and struggling," Seo Kwang-sun told the Associated Press. She is a mother of a student taking the test in Seoul.

Schools throughout the country have been alternating between on-and-offline classes. However, the Education Ministry is planning a total return to classrooms next week. There are currently no plans to impose stricter COVID prevention measures in schools.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

Jogyesa Temple
A man looks at name cards wishing the success of students sitting the annual university entrance exam, at Jogyesa temple in Seoul on November 17 the night before more than half a million students will sit for the exam, known locally as "suneung." More than 60 students taking the test have COVID. Photo by Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images

The Suneung is crucial in the education-obsessed country, where careers and even marriage prospects greatly depend on which university a person attends.

South Korea's death toll currently stands at 3,187 COVID casualties.

To reduce noise, transportation authorities were planning to temporarily stop landings and departures of planes at airports during the English-listening part of the test. Government offices and private companies had their employees come in late, and the country's stock market delayed its opening by an hour to clear roads for test-takers.

The return to classrooms is expected to help reduce education gaps and align with the government's virus strategies.

Officials eased social distancing rules starting this month in what they described as the first step toward restoring some pre-pandemic normalcy. In allowing larger social gatherings and longer indoor dining hours at restaurants, officials cited concerns about the pandemic's impact on the economy and expressed hope that improving vaccination rates would keep hospitalizations and deaths down even if the virus continues to spread.

But there has been a rise in serious cases and fatalities among older people who rejected vaccines or whose immunities waned after being injected early in the mass immunization campaign that started in late February, prompting questions about whether the decision to loosen virus restrictions was premature.

South Korean students wait for the start of the College Scholastic Ability Test at a high school in Seoul Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021. About 510,000 high school seniors and graduates across the country are expected to take the annual highly competitive university entrance exam. Chung Sung-Jun/Pool Photo via AP