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Hundreds of thousands of masked students in South Korea, including 35 confirmed Covid-19 patients, took the highly competitive university entrance exam today despite the viral resurgence that has forced authorities to toughen social distancing rules.

About 493,430 students were taking the one-day exam at about 1,380 sites across the nation, including hospitals and other medical facilities where the 35 virus patients and hundreds of other test-takers in self-quarantine sat separately from others, according to the education ministry.

South Korean students take their College Scholastic Ability Test at a school in Seoul, South Korea. Photograph: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

The annual exam, called “suneung,” or the College Scholastic Ability Test, is crucial for many students. Job prospects and social standing can often depend on which university you graduate from.

This year’s exam had been originally scheduled for November but were delayed due to the virus outbreak. Experts say on-and-off online classes have widened the gap between high achievers and low performing students due to reduced interaction with teachers, digital distractions and technical difficulties.

“If the exam had been delayed again, our kids would have felt much more psychological pressure … I think it’s fortunate the exam is taking place now,” said Kim Sun-wha, mother of a test-taker. “I hope everyone would avoid making mistakes, do their best and get good results.”

Students are required to have their temperature taken before entering test sites, wear masks throughout the exam and have their maintain distance from each other.

Students are ready to take the college entrance exam at a high school on Jeju Island, South Korea. Photograph: YONHAP/EPA

There are worries that the nationwide exam could accelerate the viral spread in South Korea. During a virus briefing Thursday, health official Lee Sang-won said he felt “really sorry” that he has to ask students to be vigilant and avoid gatherings even after the exam is over later Thursday.

“I’d like to offer words of consolation to test-takers who have studied and come to take the exam under a particularly difficult situation,” Lee said. “I want to tell you to put aside stress and enjoy yourselves fully (after the test), but it’s regrettable that I can’t say that under the current situation.”

Associated Press report that on Thursday, South Korea reported 540 new cases, taking the total to 35,703 with 529 deaths.

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