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Coronavirus: South Korean seniors return to school

Students were ordered to walk more than 3 feet from one another, wear masks and sit at desks separated by plastic dividers.
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SEOUL, South Korea — School restarted across South Korea on Wednesday, but it was a first day like never before.

In scenes repeated across the country widely hailed for how it has fought the coronavirus outbreak, teachers and staff equipped with thermometers and hand sanitizer greeted thousands of high school seniors.

At some schools, the seniors — the first group of students to return to class after nearly three months of lockdown — were ordered to walk more than 3 feet from one another, wear masks except at mealtimes, and sit at desks separated by plastic dividers. Protective screens will also be up in at some cafeterias during lunch breaks.

Image: High school students wearing face masks prepare for classes, with plastic covers placed on desks to prevent infection, as schools reopen following the global outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Daejeon, South Korea
High school students in Daejeon sit at desks with plastic barriers placed on their desks. Yonhap / Reuters

Han Sang Jun, the vice principal of Kyungbock High School in the capital Seoul, told NBC News the entire school had been sprayed with disinfectant ahead of the reopening.

“It will be challenging as COVID-19 may come without symptoms, but we are ready to protect our students and deal with new normal,” he said.

Han said the school's staff and teachers have created manuals for various situations to handle students who exhibit symptoms.

The school was keeping only the main gate open to control the movement of students and teachers, who will have their temperature checked upon entering.

Each student also received a care package with two face masks and hand sanitizer upon their return.

Despite the arrangements, some teachers are unhappy. One told Reuters on the 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," the high school teacher in Gyeonggi province said.

Image: A staff member greets students as they arrive at Kyungbock High School in Seoul
A staff member greets students as they arrive at Kyungbock High School in Seoul on Wednesday. Ed Jones / AFP - Getty Images

Some students were sent home almost as soon as they had walked through their school gates after the two high school seniors tested positive in the city of Incheon, near Seoul, on Wednesday morning, according to the education ministry. South Korean health officials reported 32 new cases, the first time the daily jump has been above 30 in more than a week.

The new school year was supposed to start in early March but has been delayed several times, forcing millions of students to learn online. Schools were supposed to start reopening last week, but that was delayed again after a new cluster of cases linked to nightclubs in Seoul.

The rest of the nation's schools are set to reopen in stages by next month.

South Korea has managed to contain its outbreak through aggressive testing and contact tracing, and has been held up as an example of effective containment.

The country has registered no new deaths in the last three days. So far, more than 11,000 coronavirus cases and 263 deaths have been reported — far fewer than other countries of comparable size.

Kelly Cobiella reported from Seoul, Yuliya Talmazan from London, Stella Kim from Los Angeles.

Reuters contributed to this report.