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In South Korea, Poorer Students Hit Harder by COVID-19 Restrictions


Ma Seo-bin, center, a high school senior at an elite, speaks in between her father Ma Moon Young, left, and mother Choi Hae-jeong during an interview at their home in Siheung, South Korea, on Sept. 19, 2020. “I felt I was trapped at the same place and I g
In South Korea, Poorer Students Hit Harder by COVID-19 Restrictions
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Like many students around the world, children in South Korea are struggling with distance learning because of coronavirus health restrictions. Many are taking online classes from home.

Some experts say the reduced interaction with teachers, digital distractions and technical difficulties are making it hard for students. This is especially the case if they have problems learning or are from poor families.

Han Shin Bi has struggled during at-home learning. She is a senior in high school in Seoul. “Online classes are really inconvenient,” she told the Associated Press. “I ended up with a bad grade (on an exam) because I didn’t really focus on studying while online.”

For students who were doing well before the health crisis, things have been less difficult. They often come from middle- and upper-class families. They have had an easier time keeping their grades up. They often have family support if they run into trouble.

South Korea is considered by many to be an education-obsessed country. People place great importance on getting good jobs with big companies. The university that a South Korean young person attends can decide many things about that person’s future: job possibilities, social groups and even who they can marry.

Han Shin Bi, a high school senior in Seoul, demonstrates how to take online classes after an interview in Seoul, South Korea, on Sept. 18, 2020. “Online classes were really inconvenient,” said Han. Experts say the reduced interaction with teachers, digita
Han Shin Bi, a high school senior in Seoul, demonstrates how to take online classes after an interview in Seoul, South Korea, on Sept. 18, 2020. “Online classes were really inconvenient,” said Han. Experts say the reduced interaction with teachers, digita


Gu Bongchang is policy director of a non-governmental organization called World Without Worries About Shadow Education. Gu said it is a mistake to believe that a person’s educational history and their ability are the same.

A recent government study of 51,021 teachers showed that about 80 percent of those questioned saw an increasing difference between their strongest and weakest students.

To deal with the problem, the Education Ministry has employed part-time teachers to help 29,000 students in elementary schools. Some teachers have been asked to temporarily work with about 2,300 high schoolers who are struggling.

Some of the problems

Some students have problems when teachers mostly prerecord talks online. Han, for example, could not ask questions in real time. In addition, her family does not have enough money to pay a tutor or send her to a cram school, like most of her friends.

“If I had had lots of money, I think I could have learned many things (after school)…and I actually wanted to learn English and Chinese at cram schools,” she said.

Even some highly successful students say distance learning is difficult.

“I felt I was trapped at the same place and I got lots of psychological stress,” said Ma Seo-bin, a high school senior at a costly foreign language school near Seoul. Ma added that it was hard not to have friends for support.

South Korea restarted in-person classes in steps in May. Officials let high-school seniors return first. The idea was to let the seniors prepare for the national university entrance exam in December — possibly the biggest test in their lives. Younger students returned later, but in a limited way that still requires most of them to take online classes at home.

In June, hundreds of thousands took a nationwide test to prepare for the December exam. In that test, the number of students with high-ranking scores increased in the three important subjects — Korean, English and math. To experts, this suggested the questions were easier than an earlier test.

But the number of those with the lowest scores also increased. Kang Minjung is a South Korean lawmaker and a member of an education committee. Kang said the results suggest that “educational polarization has become severe.”

Lim Sung-ho is with the private Jongro Academy in Seoul. Lim said the health crisis is worsening the educational difference between rich and poor.

A study by the Education Ministry and the national statistics office last year found that 75 percent of South Korean students used some form of private education. Families spent an average of $377 each month. Middle- and higher-income families spent five times more for private education than lower-income families.

Ma’s parents both work for a private English institute. Ma said they pay about $1,750 a month for their daughter’s private education and $17,550 a year for her schooling and living costs. They said it is worth the cost given how important education is to her future.

“I have no regrets,” said Ma’s father, Ma Moon Young.

Y.H. Yoon is a single mother of three children in Seoul. She worries her sons will not be able to keep up because she cannot send them to cram school. She needs to work instead of helping them while they study at home. But she urges them to study hard, even through the difficulties and the coronavirus crisis, so that they can one day get into good universities.

I’m Mario Ritter Jr.

And I'm Ashley Thompson.

Hyungjin Kim reported this story for the Associated Press. Mario Ritter Jr. adapted it for VOA Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.

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Words in This Story

distraction –n. something that makes it difficult to think or pay attention

inconvenient –adj. causing trouble or problems

focus –v. to direct effort or attention on something

obsessed –adj. to think about something to much

tutor –n. a teacher who works with one student

cram school –n. a special school that teaches a lot in a short period of time with the aim of training student for a goal, like doing well on a standardized test

psychological stress –n. tension that comes the mind, such as from worry

polarization –n. to cause groups to be separated into opposing sides

income –n. money that is earned from work, investments or business

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