New infections mar South Korean students' return to school

SEOUL (Reuters) - The discovery of new coronavirus cases in two students marred the reopening of South Korean schools on Wednesday, forcing 75 high schools to turn pupils away amid fears among some teachers that it was unsafe for classes to resume.

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Some students were sent home almost as soon as they had walked through their school gates for the first time this year, after the two high school seniors tested positive in Incheon on Wednesday morning, the education ministry said.

The beginning of the spring semester had been postponed several times since March as South Korea battled the first large coronavirus outbreak outside China, with classes held online.

But with daily coronavirus cases sharply down since a February peak, most of South Korea’s 2,356 high schools reopened under new health protocols to prevent the spread of the disease. All schools will reopen in stages between May 20 and June 1.

Teachers with thermometers and hand sanitisers welcomed seniors at school gates, checking each student for signs of fever.

Some of the 17-18 year-olds put their arms around their friends’ shoulders as they were reunited, only for teachers to tell them to keep their distance. Private sanitation contractors on motorcycles drove back and forth spraying disinfectant.

Under the new sanitation rules, students and teachers must wear masks except at mealtimes and clean their desks, which will be spaced 1 metre (3 feet) apart.

Some teachers are unhappy with the arrangements. One told Reuters on condition of anonymity that certain rules - such as setting specific times of the day when students can use the bathroom - were “practically impossible to implement”.

“I feel like we’re carrying a time bomb,” said the high school teacher in Gyeonggi Province.

The education ministry keeps track of whether teachers or students have a fever using an online self-diagnostic system and anyone with a temperature over 37.5 degrees Celsius (99.5 degrees Fahrenheit) must stay home.

If any student tests positive for the virus, the entire school will switch to online classes for at least two weeks.

Korea has reported 11,110 coronavirus cases, with 263 deaths.

Reporting by Sangmi Cha and Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting from Daewoung Kim; Editing by Josh Smith and Stephen Coates