Educational authorities in North Korea have ordered all primary and secondary schools on vacation from July 1, likely in response to growing concerns over the spread of the coronavirus that undercut official claims of success against the pandemic, RFA has learned.
The North Korean school year typically begins in January or February, after the Lunar New Year. But this year COVID-19 caused a delay to the start of the spring session. The first day of school was pushed back to late March, then late April, then finally to June 1.
North Korea says that it has been successful in preventing the spread of COVID-19, but the early vacation appears to indicate otherwise.
“In the aftermath of the coronavirus, schools here in Pyongyang have stopped classes and began early vacations,” a resident of the capital told RFA’s Korean Service July 1.
While the country has not outwardly acknowledged a single confirmed case of COVID-19 within its borders, the government admitted to its citizens in public lectures earlier this year that the virus was spreading in three parts of the country, including the capital Pyongyang.
“Students from the provinces who are attending Pyongyang No.1 Senior Middle School, are all returning home,” the Pyongyang resident said.
The middle and high school is the country’s most prestigious, and gifted students from all over the country board there when school is in session.
“Classes were being held as normal at Pyongyang No.1 Senior Middle School, but somehow school authorities suddenly ordered the students from the provinces to return home, saying that they were to be on vacation from July 1,” said the source.
The source said that the reason for the abrupt closure was due to the coronavirus spreading in the capital.
“What I know is that the school explained to the students that the suspension of classes and the early vacation were part of emergency measures related to the spread of the coronavirus,” the source said.
“They gave assignments to students in certain classes so that the students can work on supplementary lessons back home,” the source added.
“As students of Pyongyang No.1 Senior Middle School, they are really discouraged, since they have to go on vacation only one month after school started on June 1. The [families of] students from the provinces had a hard time preparing funds for room and board and classes, but [the students] have lost their opportunity to study yet again,” said the source.
The source said that the authorities had at that time not officially announced that schools were closing.
“They only notified the students from the provincial areas that they have to stop classes and go on vacation due to coronavirus,” the source said.
Schools are also closing early outside of Pyongyang. A resident of North Hamgyong Province, home of the Rason special economic zone, told RFA on June 30 that schools there were also on break starting July 1.
“The vacation started again, only a month after elementary, middle, and high schools in Rason opened after the repeated postponement of the beginning of the school year.”
The fact that the schools are closing yet again goes against what the local authorities have been telling the people about North Korean successes against the spread of COVID-19.
“Although the party is promoting its excellent coronavirus quarantine performance, the people are highly concerned about the spread of coronavirus due to the unprecedented suspension of classes,” the second source said.
Students returning to the area from schools in Pyongyang was even more alarming, according to the second source.
“If even the capital is not safe from the coronavirus, how can we believe in our socialist medical system that’s supposed to be superior to the rest of the world?” the second source said.
“Unless the spread of the coronavirus stops, students will not be able to go back to school until early September.”
The second source said that primary and secondary schools are on break, but universities are still in session.
An NK News report published Tuesday addressed conflicting information over the school closures. It noted that there has been no official announcement from educational authorities regarding the early vacation or its reasons, and it remains unclear if universities in some areas are also closing or not.
State media have, however, indirectly acknowledged the early vacation is prompted by COVID-19. In a July 5 Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) report that detailed various efforts against the virus, the media outlet said, “The educational sector is also taking due measures to let all the educational institutions across the country ensure summer vacation on the anti-epidemic principles.”
According to a Daily NK report from last week, the Ministry of Education had ordered the schools closed on June 22 and mobilized staff and students of universities, elementary, middle and high schools to disinfect classrooms on June 29 and 30. Authorities then installed paper seals on classroom doors in schools to ensure that quarantine measures would not be breached.
Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.