(ATTN: RECASTS lead; ADDS education minister's and student's comments)
By Lee Minji
SEOUL, April 9 (Yonhap) -- Gu Ja-ho began his first day of school as a middle school senior on Thursday -- at home.
He sat in front of a desktop at his home in the central Seoul neighborhood of Jongno at 8:20 a.m. as his classmates joined him online for an introductory class on remote learning and copyrights.
He took home economics, physical education and music classes online throughout the morning, with a 10-minute recess between each lesson.
"It's something new, but it's not that bad," the 15-year-old told Yonhap News Agency, "I can concentrate better since I don't have friends talking to me during class."
Gu is one of the tens of thousands of middle school and high school seniors who returned to school via remote learning, as classrooms remain closed amid the coronavirus pandemic that has infected more than 10,000 here.
Students across the country greeted their classmates and teachers from their living rooms or bedrooms as they logged onto digital platforms, such as Zoom or Google Classroom, to begin the new school year.
The government had postponed the new school year, which usually starts in March, by five weeks to Monday. But the plan changed as unexpected cluster infections broke out in various parts of the country.
Last week, the government announced plans to first resume online classes for seniors at middle and high schools before expanding the remote learning program to other grades.
Grades one and two at middle schools and high schools, as well as grades four to six at elementary schools, will begin the new semester next Thursday. Grades one to three at elementary schools will start taking online classes from April 20. The national college entrance exam has been pushed back by two weeks to Dec. 3.
Classes at kindergartens and child care centers have been indefinitely postponed.
Schools have been advised to carry out remote learning through various approaches, such as classes involving real-time interaction, using online lectures prerecorded by the national educational TV channel, and giving projects and homework to students.
The virtual classes, a new experiment for schools here, started off relatively smoothly in many schools.
In Seoul Girls High School in the western district of Mapo, a teacher called the attendance and used pre-uploaded material for a psychology class. The teacher complimented students and asked questions to induce participation.
Students mostly seemed to concentrate well, probably due to their experience taking online classes provided by private sector education platforms.
On the other hand, some schools have reported technical issues.
In Gyeonggi Province, a middle school had issues holding its ceremony for the first day of school, as the sound in a prerecorded video showing the principal was muted.
In some schools in Incheon and Gangwon Province, students had issues connecting to an online class provided by the state-run education channel, prompting a delay in classes.
Chat features had pros and cons. While online chatting helped students communicate with teachers in real time, there were also cases where the chat screens scrolled up too quickly as students asked questions, making it difficult for teachers to respond.
With no definite schedule on when face-to-face classes will resume, students and teachers are expected to go through a challenging trial-and-error phase as they tackle cultural and technical hurdles to adjust to remote learning.
A preliminary poll conducted by local education offices in March found that there were 223,000 students nationwide who did not have devices for online learning. The number may grow when factoring in families where gadgets would have to be shared among children.
In a meeting with education officials Thursday, Minister Yoo Eun-hae said seven of the country's 17 education offices have distributed electronic devices to all middle and high school students who do not have one.
The 10 other education offices have also completed the distribution of devices to seniors at middle and high schools, she added.
Still, some have highlighted possible lapses in supervision, especially for students who are not familiar with the use of tech gadgets or do not have adults around to help them get used to online classes.
An organization representing parents sent a letter to the minister earlier this week, suggesting the government have lecturers or college students help these students.
Technical difficulties, such as managing and distributing educational materials and security issues, are also expected to surface in the first few days, or weeks, of classes.
Some schools in the United States that have started online classes have banned the use of digital platforms, like Zoom, due to security concerns.
Teachers are expected to have a sharp learning curve themselves as they prepare for online teaching, regardless of their tech savviness or skills in using digital tools.
Minister Yoo said that the education ministry has been in talks with copyrights groups and the culture ministry to ease copyright guidelines so that teachers can use various teaching materials for online classes.
The government has acknowledged the concerns but appears optimistic.
"Resuming school online is a new road we've never walked, we are in fact opening a new road," Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun told a press briefing Wednesday.
"Extending the school closure would be the way to take to evade responsibility and numerous difficulties ... (but) we opted for online classes as this is the second best plan," the prime minister said. "We will aim to make sure remote learning goes well, but ultimately, we'll do our best to stabilize the COVID-19 (pandemic) so our children can go to school."
Gu is very much looking forward to that day. "I miss my friends, and playing soccer with them at school," he said.