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After an unprecedented five-month break, South Korean students are returning to their classrooms as government health officials declared that the country may have avoided a second wave of infections.

The schools are reopening in stages, with high school seniors returning first on Wednesday and middle and elementary students slated to go back to school in the following weeks. The third-year high school students are leading the return as they now only have half a year before their annual university entrance exams in early December, education officials said.

Unlike in the U.S., South Korea’s academic year starts in March, but students never returned to school after their winter break as the nation confirmed its first COVID-19 infection in late January and then saw a spike in cases — peaking at near 1,000 a day — in February. Restarts of schools were delayed five times, and in April, all students were offered online classes instead.

Health and education officials had worried that a new cluster infections linked to nightclubs in Seoul earlier this month could once again jeopardize plans to reopen schools, but they concluded the latest outbreak appears under control.

South Korea has been able to sharply slow coronavirus infections by launching a massive testing and contact tracing campaign. Thirteen new cases were reported Tuesday, raising the total to 11,078.

Teachers check dividers on desks at Junghwa Girls High School in Daegu, South Korea, on Tuesday, ahead of the school's reopening.  | YONHAP / VIA AP
Teachers check dividers on desks at Junghwa Girls High School in Daegu, South Korea, on Tuesday, ahead of the school’s reopening. | YONHAP / VIA AP

“There are still worries over safety of our students, but the situation of the community spread is within the capacity of our health care system,” Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said before a meeting Tuesday. “If we, the government, school and families, act together, we could restart the off-line classes safely.”

South Korea’s government left detailed academic schedules and methodology for each age group to be decided by respective regional authorities. But most students in Seoul — representing more than 15 percent of all school-age children in the country — will not go to school every day, except for those in their final academic year, according to the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education.

Depending on the school district, schools will start on different days and students will alternate between attending classes and online instructions at home. Class times and lunch hours are also being staggered. No extracurricular activities will be allowed.

Education officials said that a school would be shuttered immediately if an infection is confirmed among the school’s students, faculty and staff.

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