South Korea started vaccinating high school seniors and members of teaching staff on Monday in the latest effort to expand the country’s vaccination program, even as older residents remain ineligible for shots.
The Ministry of Education said the move would “facilitate safe and smooth academic operations” for the second half of the year and ease the burden on students preparing for critical exams.
According to health officials, 460,000 students and 190,000 teachers will be eligible for the Pfizer vaccine across 280 vaccination centers. They will be eligible to receive the shots through July 30.
Last year, the pandemic added another layer of stress and anxiety for students who were preparing for their college entrance exam. The nine-hour exams are held once a year, typically in November. They were postponed by two weeks last year because of the pandemic.
High school seniors are the first group of adolescents to be vaccinated in South Korea, where until Monday vaccination was available only to people 55 and older. Monday was the first day vaccine appointments were opened to those ages 50 to 54.
Though South Korea, a country of 50 million people, has kept the coronavirus relatively under control at 180,000 cases and 2,058 deaths, its vaccination campaign has been sluggish. About 13 percent of its population is fully vaccinated, according to a New York Times database. As the country faces a surge in infections — especially in the capital, Seoul — the vaccines offer relief to students preparing for what many consider the most important test of their lives.
“Covid-19 made me lose motivation since I was not able to study with my friends,” said Lee Lim, a high school senior in Seoul preparing for her college entrance exam. Ms. Lee, who prefers studying at cafes or study rooms, said that being stuck at home made her more prone to get sidetracked with YouTube or Netflix.
While Ms. Lee has some concerns about potential vaccine side effects, she considers herself lucky to be eligible for a shot when so many adults are not. “I feel relieved,” she said.
Teachers who work at public schools and private academies also spoke of a sense of comfort.
“Covid-19 has affected everything for students,” said Kang Seung-hyun, an English teacher in Seoul. “They couldn’t see or study with their friends, they had to cope with schools shutting down and reopening constantly, things that I’ve never had to go through and took for granted.”
Mr. Kang said that he and his fellow teachers were greatly reassured by their eligibility for vaccines. “It finally feels like something good is happening,” he said.
Seoul and its surrounding areas are under Level 4 of the government’s social distancing measures until July 25, meaning people are not allowed to gather in groups of more than two after 6 p.m. Certain businesses like clubs are also barred from operating, and restaurants and cafes are required to close at 10 p.m.