|A sixth grade homeroom teacher at an elementary school in Songpa District, eastern Seoul, gives a remote lesson in this March 30 photo. / Korea Times File|
By Lee Hyo-jin
For Park Jeong-bin, a first grader at a middle school in Yeongdeungpo District, Seoul, the 2020 academic year did not unfold as she had imagined.
In March, she entered her new school without an opening assembly ― canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The spring semester, after being delayed for a month, kicked off online in April, and only in the first week of June was Park able to attend the school to meet her classmates in person for the first time.
Over the past eight months she has been struggling to cope with remote classes. Park says the cons of online education far outweigh the pros.
"I first thought online learning was convenient since I don't have to wake up early to get ready for school. But as time went by, I realized how I easily became distracted sitting in front of the monitor alone without any real interaction with my teachers and classmates. Also, some online assignments were too difficult for me to complete on my own."
These problems were reflected in her low academic achievements in the first semester. "I bombed my tests, especially in math and English. That's why my mom scheduled additional English classes with my private tutor three times a week."
Remote classes for public schools spurred by COVID-19 have influenced not only the academic life of the students but also their daily life and routines.
A high school student surnamed Jeong in Seoul said she has gained almost eight kilograms this year due to limited outdoor activities along with irregular sleep and eating routines at home.
"As I can't hang out with my friends at school or after school, we mostly communicate through social media and messenger apps. But this leads to frequent conflicts with my parents because they think that I'm spending too much time online," Jeong said.
Meanwhile, in-person classes are carried out under strict quarantine measures including attendance caps, the wearing of masks and the installation of plastic screens on each desk. Things are not the same as they used to be in the pre-pandemic world, said Park Yeon-jae, a fifth grader at an elementary school in Mapo District, Seoul.
"I've barely become familiar with all my classmates' names as we've mostly attended school divided into two groups for the first half of the year. And the plastic screens on each desk stop me from communicating with my friends," she said.
The fifth grader further expressed disappointment over other limited activities at school due to the pandemic such as not being able to borrow books from the library and cancelled field trips.
For teachers at public schools who have also been adjusting to the new reality, the issue of achievement gaps between students has risen as a concern.
"Now that we've gone through two semesters under the new system, the learning gap has already become a reality. It can be seen through test results and their level of participation in offline classes," said a sixth grade homeroom teacher at an elementary school in Gangseo District, Seoul, who wished to be identified only by her surname, Lee.
"Although this is very worrisome, there are not many feasible ways to push those falling behind to participate in online classes other than encouraging the child via messages and phone calls or asking their parents for support," said Lee.
Out of similar concerns, many parents have been calling for more interactive classes using Zoom or other meeting apps, rather than unengaging prerecorded online video material which requires their children to watch for hours on end with undivided focus.
According to a recent survey conducted by the Seoul Education Research and Information Institute of 3,851 parents and 573 teachers of fourth to sixth grade students, 72 percent of parents agreed on the necessity of classes that are more interactive. However, teachers remained lukewarm on the idea, with only 27 percent agreeing on increasing interactive classes.
Gu Bon-chang, a senior member at the World Without Worries about Shadow Education, an education NGO based in Seoul, stated that the government should be more active in reflecting parents' opinions in this inevitable reshaping process of public education.
"Although the abrupt changes in the education sector due to the pandemic might not be very welcoming for many of us, the country will be able to find a breakthrough via continuous discussions between related bodies," Gu told The Korea Times.
"The Ministry of Education and regional education offices should actively cooperate to provide students with high-quality educational content through blending online and offline classes."