November 12, 2009 / 8:44 AM / 9 years ago

Flu fails to halt South Korea's crucial college exam

SEOUL (Reuters Life!) - Not even the H1N1 flu, which has paralyzed many parts of the globe, could stop South Korean teens from taking the national college entrance exam, a test many feel will set the course for their future.

Examinees who have a high fever, wait before they take a college entrance exam at a separate exam hall in Seoul November 12, 2009. REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won

The flu has hit school-age children particularly hard, adding another element of anxiety for the test, which was held on Thursday and for which students spend years studying and parents spend vast sums on cram school and tutor fees.

Most years, students go through metal detectors to make sure they are not carrying mobile phones and other gadgets to cheat. This year, they had to go through the added hurdle of having their temperatures taken to pick out those who may be infected.

About 2,800 students with H1N1 symptoms among the 670,000 taking the test were segregated into special venues for the exam that is given once a year, officials said.

“There is a separate room set up that will be overseen by the school nurse,” a teacher at Sehwa High School, Cho Ban-hoon said. Nearly 900 such rooms were set up throughout the country.

Financial markets and most work places opened an hour later for the annual exam to move the morning rush hour so that students could safely reach venues before the gates closed at all test sites across the country at 8:10 a.m.

Mothers prayed, airlines grounded flights for about an hour during the day for the exam’s English language listening portion while friends family cheered on the students as they went into the grueling nine-hour drill that is a rite of passage.

“It is already difficult for the student and their parents, and the swine flu problem only made it worse,” said the mother of a high school senior who was taking the test.

Most teenagers preparing for the test usually spend about 14 hours a day in studies. Many have been preparing their entire lives for the test, sacrificing normal home life for sessions at cram schools that do not end until deep in the night.

Soldiers, police officers and private security guards offered rides on the backs of motorcycles to students who were having a hard time making it to test sites on time through heavy traffic, arriving often to the wild cheers of friends and classmates.

Once the exam was under way, many parents stayed outside the closed gates in silent vigils.

“Kids today say they feel enormous pressure to know their parents are waiting outside,” one mother said as she turned away.

Editing by Jon Herskovitz and Miral Fahmy

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