Children walk through the playground of a public kindergarten in Songpa District, Seoul, in this May 27, 2020 photo. Korea Times photo by Hong In-ki
By Bahk Eun-ji
As the government raised the social distancing scheme to its highest level, schools and kindergartens in the greater Seoul area switched to full-time remote classes last week.
While children at public and private kindergartens, which are supervised by the Ministry of Education, have to receive online-only education without interaction with teachers and friends, those attending so-called “English kindergartens” still have offline classes as they are categorized as private academies, known in Korean as “hagwon.”
As this situation has been recurring since last year, there are concerns that negative effects from lack of social interaction development and learning gaps may occur among those children affected from the early childhood stage.
A 43-year-old mother in northern Seoul’s Nowon District, who wished to be identified only by her surname Kim, said she decided to send her seven-year-old daughter to a private English-language kindergarten.
“I kept my child at home last year when the kindergartens switched to online, but online education didn’t work well because she was too young to concentrate on the remote classes,” Kim said.
“When I found out English language kindergartens are classified as private academies and thus there are no problems sending children to them even under the strengthened social distancing rules, I decided to send my daughter there.”
A teacher checks a child’s temperature at a public kindergarten in Gwangju in this April 3, 2020 photo. Yonhap
Since last week, public and private kindergartens in Seoul, Gyeonggi Province and Incheon have switched to online classes full-time under Level 4 social distancing rules, and emergency childcare services are available only for working parents.
Preschoolers are encouraged to take remote classes run by the education ministry, while some kindergartens also offer real-time video classes using tools like Zoom.
However, parents are concerned about potential learning gaps, because most preschoolers have difficulties concentrating on remote classes, especially without help from a parent or other adult, and the young children’s development depends largely on interaction with peers and teachers.
Contrary to public and private kindergartens, private education academies can still operate until 10 p.m. under the Level 4 rules, so parents of English kindergarteners are relatively free from these concerns.
Operators of English kindergartens also say it would be difficult for them to close even in the highest virus alert level, because they have to cover the labor costs of native English teachers and other business and maintenance costs ― the reason why such institutions charge more than 1 million won ($870) per month for tuition.
“Last year in the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak, I asked the academy my son was attending whether it was possible to allow him to take a leave of absence or refund the tuition fees, but they said they had to continue operations due to their financial problems,” said Jung Ji-yoon, a mother of a seven-year-old boy who is attending an English-language kindergarten in Uijeongbu, Gyeonggi Province.
The education authorities said it is impossible to control the private businesses.
“According to the current quarantine guidelines, English teaching academies for children can be operated as long as they follow the quarantine rules,” a ministry official said.
“We are also aware of concerns about the learning gap. At this point, we have been continuously updating the educational content and materials on the website for preschoolers for parents and preschoolers to use at home,” the official said.