Back-to-School Lessons From South Korea

The inside scoop from a teacher in a country that did everything right

Photo: Macau Photo Agency/Unsplash

I teach literature and creative writing at an after-school program in South Korea. (Yes, in Korea, “after-school” means more school.) When Covid-19 hit, our school, along with public schools across the country, were shut down. I spent six weeks in my apartment fielding worried calls from American friends and family who had just added “deadly virus” to their “Did you hear North Korea just launched a missile?” fears about me living here. No one, including myself, could smell the shit storm headed their way.

At the end of my six-week isolation-staycation of mostly scratching my butt, watching Netflix, and contemplating the meaninglessness of existence, we returned to school. By school, I mean trying to get middle school students to give a shit about Gulliver’s Travels via Zoom. As many teachers will attest, teaching on Zoom is (not to sound too much like my students) the freaking worst.

As North America debates whether to send students back to school in the months ahead, I can’t help but wonder if any of the politicians involved have looked outside to see how things have worked in other countries.

Despite this, many students enjoy the format and after a few weeks of adjustment, it felt like everyone got into the swing of things. Inevitably, lessons get tweaked and expectations taper as everyone lives and learns. In my mind, the fear that students won’t learn because they are on Zoom is more a reflection of what society thinks of its children than a statement on how the process itself goes. The information doesn’t change: Words don’t fall off the page, multiplication tables don’t become divided, the world still rotates at a 23.5-degree angle. With the right structure and planning, distance learning works and can even be enjoyable.

This Zoom-only life went on for about two months. Then, things started to open back up, and the government put out a plan to get kids back into the classroom.

We returned to a mix of online and in-classroom lessons.

Korea didn’t send back all students at once. They staggered the students so that different grades alternated between in-classroom and online lessons. Largely, schools created their own policies (based on government guidelines) designed to limit contact, social distance, and put safety first.

At our school, the middle school students come into the classroom one week, then the elementary students come the following week, and so on. Non-essential classes (like creative writing) have continued on Zoom throughout the semester.

The Korean government doesn’t take chances when it comes to safety or care about the expense involved to guarantee it.

As North America debates whether to send students back to school in the months ahead, I can’t help but wonder if any of the politicians involved have looked outside to see how things have worked in other countries. Here’s hoping they pay attention.

Our strict guidelines for sanitation look like this:

  1. When teachers arrive at work, their temperatures are taken, and a team goes around the school spraying disinfectant on every surface in every classroom. This happens again during lunch break.
  2. When students first arrive, they are socially distanced out in the courtyard.
  3. One by one, students have their temperature taken and recorded, and then are sent down the hall where a heat camera registers their temperature again. From there, they are directed to an approved classroom.
  4. Only some classrooms are permitted to hold students — based on new safety guidelines. My classroom, for instance, does not pass the test because it does not have an open window and is not large enough to permit students’ desks to be properly socially distanced.
  5. Each desk has a plastic shield attached to it that covers the front and sides.
  6. Students disinfect their hands when they enter a classroom and every 45 minutes throughout their stay at the school.
  7. Teachers, students, and staff all wear masks for the entire time we are gathered in the building together. Teachers are expected to change their masks before every new class.
  8. Before and after every class, teachers disinfect their own desks and the student desks.
  9. As a community, we pay constant attention to social distancing, and students’ activities during breaks must follow distancing protocols. At the end of class, students are led out of the building one by one to head home safely and soundly.

Yes, it can be a hassle. Yes, it can be tedious. Yes, it is worth it. We have not seen a single case of Covid-19 at our school of over 300 students who have been back in person for three and a half months. This is a very small scale experiment, mind you. Each of our classes has a maximum of eight students. This means that reopening schools on a larger scale requires a minimum of these procedures and guidelines — and likely additional measures.

The Korean government doesn’t take chances when it comes to safety or care about the expense involved to guarantee it. Photos in the Washington Post reveal what the government has done on a massive scale for public school students. Workers disinfect daily, desks all have dividers, sanitizer is provided, social distancing reminders are set up to show students where to go and how far apart to stand. Everyone, without exception, is wearing a mask.

With school reopening, as with all of life in the wake of Covid-19, Korea isn’t focusing on “getting back to normal.” They are embracing the new normal and doing what needs to be done.

Columnist and author. My writing is like a bunch of people at a party trying to tell different jokes at the same time. benjamindavis.substack.com

Sign up for Inside Your Head 🧠

By Elemental

A weekly newsletter exploring why your brain makes you think, feel, and act the way you do, by Elemental senior writer Dana Smith. Take a look.

By signing up, you will create a Medium account if you don’t already have one. Review our Privacy Policy for more information about our privacy practices.

Check your inbox
Medium sent you an email at to complete your subscription.

Get the Medium app