The tests are so important that in normal years, the state takes extreme measures to support students – opening hours are changed to clear roads to avoid students getting stuck in traffic and flights are rescheduled to prevent the sound of aircraft engines from disrupting the English listening test.
But this year, more planning was needed, as South Korea tries to get tested while keeping teens safe from the coronavirus. Students will be temperature checked before entering the testing facilities and will need to wear masks throughout the test.
Arrangements have been made for even 3,775 students to take the tests from quarantine, and for the 35 students who tested positive for Covid-19 as of Tuesday to take the test from a hospital bed.
The exams help determine whether students transfer to the most prestigious college and what career path they can take – some options, such as medicine, will be closed to students who do not get a high enough degree.
“Every citizen understands the exam as a major national event,” Education Minister Yu Eun Hai told CNN in an exclusive pre-test interview.
South Korea has been relatively successful in controlling the Covid-19 outbreak, with more than 35,000 cases and 529 deaths reported.
But as students prepare for the biggest test of their high school career, the country has been hit by a third wave of cases, particularly in the capital, Seoul, where half of the country’s population lives. A week before the exam, Yoo ordered high schools across the country to close and switch online lessons.
What it’s like to get tested during a coronavirus
South Korea’s ability to take university placement tests is absolutely remarkable – thanks to careful planning by the authorities.
But exam season is hardly as usual in South Korea.
Usually, anxious parents cheer for their children as they enter testing centers, but this year, Seoul authorities have required parents to refrain from chanting or waiting outside the school gate on exam day. Anyone who showed signs of illness was ordered to be tested in a separate room where observers wore full protective suits.
Students were separated by dividers while they were taking the test, and the government has put in place ventilation guidelines for test rooms. Students were prohibited from using the cafeteria or waiting rooms to reduce contact with them.
Public health clinics run the tests until 10 pm the day before the exam, to encourage students to make a diagnosis if they develop symptoms. Covid tests have been prioritized for students. A high school teacher tested positive for the injury in Daejeon, a city south of Seoul, at around 9:30 pm on Wednesday. After a close acquaintance tested positive, dozens of test workers were replaced by reservists.
For students taking the test, these procedures made the already difficult exam even more stressful. Seoul student Hwang Eun Jae, who was taking an exam for the second time after graduating the previous year, said he has been studying roughly 15 hours a day, including during weekends, for several months.
“I feel more anxious (this year) because we need to take the exam in a much worse condition,” he said. “We need to wear masks, and there is a plastic partition on the desk.”
What are the risks?
Authorities are taking extra measures for a simple reason: They are desperate to prevent an exam-related outbreak.
Unlike previous outbreaks, the third wave has spread among young people, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency. After the exam on Thursday, some students will travel across the country to take additional exams held by colleges.
“While we were well prepared, I fear the rare scenario where an undetected patient is found among test takers and the community begins to spread,” said Minister Yu. “We are doing everything we can to prevent such a scenario.”
But for people, the stakes were too great.
In recent weeks, nearly 6,000 people signed an online petition demanding that the exam be delayed by two weeks. The petition said taking the exam now “is like throwing students into a fire pit” and questioned whether education was more important than children’s health.
In online communities where high school seniors share exam advice, many students said they are concerned that if they catch Covid during the test, they may have to quarantine, which means they may miss additional college exams the following week.
But President Moon Jae-in’s government was adamant that the test be continued.
Although Na Young Seo, a high school student in a metropolis outside of Seoul, said that the mask she had to wear and the large separator attached to her desk would make it difficult to focus, she was more concerned about the uncertainty caused by the epidemic. Because the test was already postponed once.
“Frankly, I would like to finish the exam as soon as possible. Of course it would be dangerous,” she said. “The constant delay and the endless study that follows will be very difficult for me. I want it to end soon.”
Despite the risk of contracting Covid-19, Hwang, the student in Seoul, said he was not worried about infection.
“I think any student would be more concerned about getting a bad exam result than about Covid,” he said.
CNN’s Gawon Bae, Son So-mi, and Joh Yun-ji contributed reports from Seoul.