SEOUL – Eight-year-old Yoo Ju-chan likes the coronavirus a lot. The start of his school semester got delayed by a week, and his after-hours cram school canceled classes, too.
“It’s so much more fun to stay at home,” he said. “There’s no question.”
Sure, Ju-chan’s evening school has piled on extra homework to make up for the classes he is missing, and he has been stuck indoors since the government’s decision on Sunday – even the playground near his family’s apartment is empty.
But he’s not complaining. “Even with that homework, my playtime more than doubled,” he said. “Now I have about seven hours of playtime. I frolic with my dog at home. I play video games. I hang out with my parents more.”
On Thursday, Japan went even further than South Korea, closing schools nationwide through March because of the fast-spreading coronavirus, a significant measure meant to limit the infection’s spread at what the government considers a critical time.
Taking into account both countries, that’s nearly 20 million children whose education is being disrupted, to curb the spread of a virus that mainly kills elderly people.
Here in Seoul, there are distinctly mixed feelings about the government’s move.
South Korea has perhaps the most high-pressure and competitive education system in the world, and many children spend several hours every evening at cram schools known as hagwon, trying to gain a crucial advantage over their peers.
Hwang Hyun-bi, 12, usually spends three hours at her hagwon every evening after school – studying math, science, English and Chinese.
The hagwon has doubled or even tripled her homework to make up for the class cancellations, and she says she doesn’t really have any more free time. “But I did have some fun at home,” she said. “I watched ‘The Incredibles’ with my sister.”
Nevertheless, Hyun-bi can’t wait for the virus threat to ease. This month marked the final weeks of her time in elementary school: Children weren’t allowed in classrooms unless they were wearing masks, and parents weren’t allowed to attend the graduation ceremony.
“I really don’t like having to wear a mask during class,” she said. “It makes it hard for me to breathe.”
She had to cancel plans to celebrate her graduation with friends in Seoul’s trendy Hongdae neighborhood, and when she went for orientation at her new middle school, “everyone was wearing a mask, so I couldn’t see the faces of my new friends.”
Her 6-year-old sister, Si-yeon, doesn’t have homework to make up for her canceled hagwon classes. She has been spending her free time coloring, drawing and painting – her dream is to become an artist – as well as reading books. But she doesn’t like the virus, either.
“I like playing outside,” she said. “The last time I went out biking was two weeks ago, and I love biking. Also, I couldn’t go to my kindergarten this month. I wanted to go to my kindergarten and meet my friends.”
The girls’ mother, Lee Eun-jin, says she and the other moms in the neighborhood are worried about the “education gap” caused by the virus.
They live in Mok-dong, an affluent Seoul neighborhood known as a “special education district” because of its abundance of hagwon and good public schools. Here, parents spend an average of $1,000 a month on after-school classes for their children.
On an online forum for Mok-dong mothers, Lee says people are discussing how to make up for canceled hagwon classes and looking for private home tutors. But she says she’d be more worried if her children were in high school and preparing for exams.
“It’s a happy nuisance, I would say. I like spending more time with my girls at home,” Lee said. “But taking care of them for 24 hours, no school, no kindergarten, is a different story. If this was an actual vacation, we would have planned outings, but we are just stuck indoors in this awkward limbo.”
Despite the government’s “strong” advice to close down, two-thirds of the 25,000 hagwon in the South Korean capital have stayed open, Cho Hee-yeon, Seoul’s education chief, said Thursday.
“I understand that parents are making the best effort to support their children’s studies, and have difficulty finding a place to entrust their children in these urgent situations,” Cho said in a statement. “But now is the time for our country to act together to overcome the crisis.”
Choi Bo-na, a 29-year-old teacher, says her school decided only this week that it would close, and she thinks it might have to reopen for high school students preparing for the college entrance exam. “For them, studying is an urgent priority,” she said. “Virus excuses won’t make up for failing the crucial college entrance exam.”
Choi is also considering videotaping or live-streaming her reading and essay-writing class.
Four-year-old Sun Yul normally lives with his father and grandmother in Paju near the border with North Korea. But with kindergarten there canceled, he spent this week with his mother in her apartment in Seoul’s Itaewon district. He’s having a great time, he says, because he can watch YouTube videos at home.
His mom, Son Seung-hee, quickly chimed in.
“Well, you know, moms are in this emergency situation right now. Following nursery closures, I have to plan how my baby will spend his 24 hours,” she said. “A baking session in the morning, drawing together, playing in the kitchen in the afternoon, and then the remaining time, I have no choice but to let the kid watch YouTube.”
On Wednesday, Yul and his mom had a big piece of white paper rolled out on the floor and were creating a “treasure map” with paintbrushes and crayons.
“Yul has a lot of free time and wants to play,” Son said. “The sky outside is very blue. But we can’t go anywhere.”
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Denyer reported from Tokyo.