Lessons from South Korea on social distancing in schools

An early childhood English teacher in South Korea, originally from West Virginia, shares how social distancing and sanitizing measures have been frustrating and distracting to learning—and have helped keep students and staff safer.
By: | June 15, 2020
Teacher-created partitions are helping with social distancing in South Korean classrooms.Teacher-created partitions are helping with social distancing in South Korean classrooms.

Aside from the traditional lessons focused on writing, phonics and other academic subjects, a school day in Seoul, South Korea, looks and feels much different in these days due to COVID-19, according to an early childhood English teacher working at a private school in the capital city.

Jordan Elyse McCutcheon, originally from West Virginia, says teaching has been more difficult since social distancing measures were implemented to help prevent the spread of the virus. The children and school staff must submit to twice-daily temperature checks, teachers sanitize their classrooms multiple times a day, and everyone must wear a mask.

As schools in the United States make plans to reopen this summer and fall, the experiences and advice shared by their counterparts around the world may provide valuable lessons for what to do—and what not to do—while trying to resume in-person learning during a public health crisis.

“It’s really hard to keep masks on 5- and 6-year-olds,” says McCutcheon, adding that it’s even difficult for her to wear the mask and speak all day.

Still, the safety measures enacted have help prevent an outbreak at her school. “It’s way extra work but I think it’s the best way to stay safe,” says McCutcheon, who has taught in Seoul for five years and previously worked as a teacher in Chile.

The school where McCutcheon teaches, in the Haebangchon district of Seoul, closed to students for only two weeks this spring as one school year ended and another began. During the second week of closure, teachers went back to the building to design and decorate classrooms and hallways with social distancing signage. McCutcheon says the teachers also created clear standing partitions to place between children at their shared desks. Those partitions fall down dozens of times a day, she adds, distracting everyone from the lesson being taught.

The school did not alter the curriculum in response to the virus and is under much pressure to keep children on track academically, she says. As such, she documents each student’s progress through twice weekly reports to parents. Her classroom typically has 12 students and two teachers, but because some nearby schools have closed due to COVID-19 outbreaks, she now has 20 students in her class.

One of the biggest changes is that the school no longer allows children to play outside or play with toys in the classroom, McCutcheon explains. Recess used to include yoga time or playtime on mats. That has been replaced with independent drawing or movies.

Teachers in the U.S. will need patience as schools reopen, McCutcheon says. They must realize that it will be difficult for students and staff to wear masks all day and to keep distant from each other.

Being optimistic and enjoying light-hearted moments helps, McCutcheon notes. This week, two of her students kissed while wearing their masks. It was cute and, for a brief moment, the joyful display of affection made McCutcheon smile. Then she told the friends to separate.

Kara Arundel covers special education for Special Ed Connection, a DA sister publication.