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How COVID19 is widening the education gap in Seoul-Korea

Yuree Lee

Credit: Viva International Pictures

In 2020, South Korea’s black comedy movie “Parasite” won four awards at the 92nd Academy Awards. The 'Parasite' Oscar’ sweep was a triumph for South Korean culture. However, the movie itself is a tale of two South Korean families - the wealthy Parks and the poor Kims - mirroring the deepening inequality in Asia’s fourth-largest economy. Inequality that has been a rising issue in Korea - has the 2nd-highest income gap in OECD and posted a poverty of 17.4 percent, the 2nd highest among the 35 economies analyzed.

In the movie, one character fakes a diploma for her brother to get a job as a tutor for a rich family. And she herself pretends to have graduated from an American art college, though she has no formal art education. This portrays South Koreans' view on education - the main propeller of social mobility for themselves and their family as a gateway to the South Korean middle class.

South Korea has the highest reliance on the private education market in OECD. Private education is a $20 billion industry in South Korea. A vast majority of students take classes late into the night on top of their regular school curriculum. A government survey of tens of thousands of parents and teachers in 2019 found that 75% of South Korean students participate in some form of private education, spending an average of $377 a month. The survey by the Education Ministry and the national statistics office showed middle- and higher-income families spent five times more for such private education than lower-income families.

With COVID19, the education and knowledge gap between the children of “haves” and “have-nots” has been drastically increasing. Parents of high-income families actively responded to the “no class room period” which came very suddenly. The economic/income capacity which offsets the gap in public education widened the “new age of disparity” that leads to social relations and emotional well-being beyond the education and knowledge gap.

As students have to spend more time in the households, parents started to manage the children;s physical activities and companionship. Min Yuri(11, pseudonym), who lives in Songpa-gu, quit the ballet academy last year, but instead started one-on-one pilates that minimizes concerns of infection. She has been taking Chinese tutoring with three classmates from the same apartment complex since last winter. Min's father said, "It is not only to study Chinese, but also to create a community." Home training, in which exercise instructors visit and teach children individually, is also very popular among the parents who are afraid to send their kids to sports clubs..

Park Mo (30), an English tutor for elementary school students said, “When schools are closed, the lifestyle of children, neither rich nor poor are affected by the pandemic, but the “haves” continue to manage their children with money and the networks they have. Class gap deepens and this phenomenon is inevitable.”

Pandemic also arose mental health and anxiety issues of the students. According to a survey conducted by the Gyeonggi Institute of Education in July of last year on 21,064 elementary, middle and high school students, 44.5% of students with fairly well economic background said they are concerned or very concerned with their future after the COVID19, where as 62.6% of students with poor economic background said they are concerned and very concerned about their future.

For parents who have the time and money to support their kids, stress is also easier to manage. According to an official from a psychological counseling center in the Gangnam area, the number of middle and high school student participants increased by more than 1.5 times. The official added that there is an increasing demand from parents who carefully monitor their children's emotions and mental health.

Experts are concerned about the extremely polarized “COVID 19 genearation.” A government survey of 51,021 teachers released in September 2020, showed that about 80% of respondents saw a widening gap between their strongest and weakest students. To address the problem, the Education Ministry has hired part-time instructors to help 29,000 underprivileged students at elementary schools.

Experts are recommending the public schools to reopen to guarantee minimum educational opportunities for the poor. In early 2021, the government decided for the 1st and 2nd graders of primary school to attend school everyday, before level 2.5 despite the persisting pandemic. The government also started to rent out IT devices for online classes. However, the efforts seem like a drop in the ocean for an education-obsessed country.

When “Parasite” was recognized by award bodies in the US, and even a festival like Cannes, Korean pride in this cinematic masterpiece swept through the whole country’s social media timeline. However, we need to remember why the film received so many recognition and awards - because it was criticizing the deepening inequality in such a creative way with a black comedy twist. Parents, policy makers, government officials, private education industry personnel must remember we should care more for the less privileged with an effort to reduce the education gap. Or else our community will be parasitic on each other rather, than forming a healthy symbiotic relationship.


Author Biography

Yuree lives in South Korea, she is a mother of two boys and has 10 years of extensive experience in PR and marketing. She currently works as a PR/marketing freelancer for start-ups from various fields. She holds a B.S. degree in media studies with a concentration in sociology from the Pennsylvania State University. She has a high interest in education, gender equality, and environmental issues. She is also a volunteer organizer for TEDxSeoul and held a few offline and online events. Recently she directed TEDxSeoulWomen2020 event.



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