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English-only preschools reopen, triggering safety concerns


Some English-immersive preschools began or are set to begin their new semesters, in comparison to regular kindergartens closed indefinitely amid fears over novel coronavirus.

All kindergartens and schools in South Korea are closed until April 9, when the new semester will begin online at high schools first. 

Some English-only kindergartens, however, have already started offline classes, triggering concerns that they could facilitate transmission clusters of the virus.

South Korea reported 9,976 cases of COVID-19, with 83.3 percent of the cases linked to clusters of infections such as churches, hospitals and workplaces.

Under the law, English-immersive preschools are not subject to the government’s order because they are classified as for-profit private institutes, or hagwon, according to the Education Ministry.

This means that there are no legal grounds to order them to close and that the ministry and regional education offices can only recommend they to defer classes and check on whether they take appropriate measures -- such as disinfecting classrooms -- to prevent mass infections.

An English-only preschool’s branch in Songpa District in eastern Seoul reopened on March 16, but only about a third of registered students are attending, according to a mother who sends her 5-year-old child there.

Some children even canceled their registrations with the institute, which is highly popular among mothers seeking early English education for children.

“I think English-only kindergartens also should follow the government’s recommendations,” she said. “I am not sending my child back to the kindergarten because I am worried my kid could get infected (with the coronavirus.)”

“But I am a bit worried about my child’s academic progress.”

When contacted by The Korea Herald, the preschool refused to comment.

Data on how many English-only kindergartens already opened classes was not available.

Some English-only preschools already opened classes offline or online, others again delayed the beginning of the new semester in line with the government’s move or are holding a vote on when to begin classes. 

“I think the reopening of English-only kindergartens should be delayed until there are no more confirmed patients or vaccines become available,” said mother of 6-year-old child who is scheduled to go back to the preschool on April 13. 

She said she is not going to send her child back to the preschool anytime soon, but worried that such a delay in the academic calendar would negatively affect her child’s academic performance and entry into a prestigious private school later.

Another mother living in southern Seoul also said she would not send her child to the English-only preschool even if it opened classes again. She is yet to be informed of whether it will open as scheduled on April 6.

“I am concerned about the possibility of my child getting infected (with the coronavirus) and I also don’t know whether English classes could run smoothly with masks on,” she said. 

Such English-only preschools are popular in Korea despite high tuition fees as parents seek to teach their English from an early age in the country’s cut-throat education system.

As of 2019, there are 558 English-only preschools across the country.

In Seoul, there are about 180 English-only preschools. The average monthly tuition fee in English-only preschools in the capital was 1 million won, with the most expensive school charged 2.2 million won, according to data from civic group World Without Worries about Shadow Education. The average monthly tuition of ordinary kindergartens in Seoul is about 230,000 won.

By Ock Hyun-ju (