Pandemic widens learning gap in education-obsessed S. Korea

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Han Shin Bi, a high school senior in Seoul, demonstrates how to take online classes after an interview in Seoul, South Korea, on Sept. 18, 2020. Online classes were really inconvenient, said Han. Experts say the reduced interaction with teachers, digital distractions and technical difficulties are widening the education achievement gap among students in South Korea, leaving those less well off, like Han, at even more at a disadvantage. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

SEOUL – When South Korea began its delayed school year with remote learning in April, that spelled trouble for low-income students who rely on public education, get easily distracted and cannot afford cram schools or tutors used by many in this education-obsessed country.

Students like Han Shin Bi, who struggled to concentrate.

“Online classes were really inconvenient,” said Han, a high school senior in Seoul. “I ended up with a bad grade (in an exam) because I didn’t really focus on studying while online. It was a blow.”

Like legions of other students around the world, kids in South Korea are struggling with remote learning, taking online classes off-and-on from home as the nation battles the coronavirus pandemic.

Experts say the reduced interaction with teachers, digital distractions and technical difficulties are widening the education achievement gap among students in South Korea, leaving those less well off, like Han, at even more at a disadvantage.

Students who were doing well before the pandemic, often from middle- and upper-class families, have an easier time keeping their grades up and plenty of family support if they run into trouble.

In South Korea, Asia's fourth-largest economy, which university you attend can determine nearly everything about your future: career prospects, social status and even who you can marry.

“One’s academic background doesn’t always match his or her capacity. But an incorrect view that they are the same is prevalent in this society,” said Gu Bonchang, a policy director at the World Without Worries About Shadow Education, an education NGO in Seoul.