Here in Korea, people are paranoid about H1N1 (the swine flu). Regulations have been set up that prohibit foreigners from volunteering at hospitals. Schools test their students’ temperatures every day with an oral thermometer. Public school teachers are quarantined from work for one week in Korea after visiting a foreign country. Some schools are even telling their students to avoid going to their after-school academies, such as the English hagwon where I work.
I am an American who started teaching English as a second language in South Korea in early February. A couple months later, in late April, news of the swine flu reached us when the World Health Organization declared a state of emergency due to the disease. Some of my younger students were paranoid that I had the disease until my co-teacher explained that I had not leaft the country since the outbreak. As we learned more about the disease, we decided it was of little concern to us. It was just little more than a regular flu that could spread quickly, right?
The government started increasing the regulation of places where swine flu would be of concern. My friend who volunteered at a hospital was told that he could no longer do so, as he is a foreigner. My friends who traveled outside the country during their holidays in July and August were not allowed to go back to work for one week following a trip outside the country. In September, our school introduced hand soap into all the classrooms and spritzed every student before class. Daily school attendence was still between 95 and 98 percent, so we teachers did not worry.
By October, we saw a drop in students. Most classes of six to ten students were missing one or two students every day. In the middle of the month, I got pretty sick and was bedridden for a couple days. At the hospital, I was told I just had a simple cold, was given medicine and then sent home. I rested, took the medicine, but continued to feel miserable and stayed in bed the following weekend. For the next two weeks, the drop in students was even more dramatic. Some classes had as few as two students. Some kids had the swine flu, some were recovering from the vaccine and some kids were simply staying away as a precautionary measure as recommended by their schools or parents.
On November 11, My director called me into her office. She told me that with the drop in enrollment she could not afford to keep me, and told me she needed to terminate my contract early. My original contract stipulated that I would work for one year, be paid in a round trip ticket from America to Korea, free housing, 2.2 million won per month, and get a bonus of one month’s salary upon completing my contract. Now she was pressuring me into leaving two months early (with less than four weeks notice) but with the same flight home and bonus pay. She offered my my paperwork to find a new job at another school in Korea, but I declined.
I’ve talked to other English teachers in Korea, and no one can account for this happening to them. Some report that their schools have closed for a day or so because students are not attending. The seriousness of the outbreak is understandable here, because kids touch each other and share food and drink more often then their American counterparts do. Eventually, when enough people have gotten the flu or been vaccinated, this will blow over. For the next couple months, however, there will probably continue to be a drop in school and after-school activity attendance.