North Korean teachers are currently visiting the homes of students to conduct one-to-one classes, Daily NK has learned. North Korea appears to be trying – in its own way – to get on with the autumn semester, which has been delayed multiple times amid uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“In accordance with an order by the Supreme Leader [Kim Jong Un] to research ways to make decent academic progress without gathering students [in one place], the education ministry instructed schools on the morning of the Oct. 19 to have teachers visit student homes to give them lectures,” a source in North Pyongan Province told the Daily NK on Friday.

Following the order, teachers went to their students’ houses to inform them about the new directive and shared with them a list of “do’s and don’ts” for the home-based classes, including what to wear and where the classes should be held at home. 

The source explained that teachers have been making the rounds to hold the one-on-one classes since Oct. 20, fitting a week’s worth of material into a single hour of instruction and handing out relevant assignments.

Daily NK was unable to uncover the exact reasons behind this unprecedented move to start classes before schools actually open. There are rumors circulating in the country, however, that the order is based on the fact that the authorities have directed students to avoid gathering at schools because of fears that COVID-19 could spread even more widely due to cooler autumn weather. 

There are also rumors that the authorities have decided to conduct home-based classes because of the difficulty some schools are having in preparing for the winter.

Quoting a source, the Daily NK reported last week that North Korean authorities instructed schools to prepare for the winter months because “there will be no winter vacation this year.” The order directed schools to acquire coal or firewood for classroom heating and to install windbreaks during the month of October.

The reality, however, is that schools are having a tough time not only purchasing the coal or firewood they need to keep classrooms warm but also raising the needed funds from the families of students. Some are saying that the home classes were contrived as a means to conduct lessons without the students going to school.

The source said locals are variously speculating that the authorities may be preparing to keep the schools shut “if COVID-19 fails to improve or winter preparations prove insufficient;” that the authorities seem to be trying to hold classes this autumn semester without the students going to school “amid various bad conditions [facing the country];” and, that this semester could be completed “without schools actually opening back up.” 

“I think parents and students in this country all believe that the start of the semester means that everyone goes to school to take classes. If students can’t get their diplomas because of the lack of progress in their classes, there will be problems when they are drafted [into the military] or try to enter university,” the source told Daily NK. “That’s why there’s a priority to make up for all the time that has been lost. I think that’s why they are trying to make up [for lost time] by [starting classes at home] before schools open again.”  

kim il sung university elite misconduct
The main entrance of Kim Il Sung University. / Image: Kim Il Sung University website

In fact, the education ministry’s latest order reportedly made no specific mention of reopening schools and simply instructed teachers to visit student homes for classes. The ministry’s previous order to reopen schools on Nov. 1 still stands, but many people believe that they will need to “wait and see” whether students actually go back to school on that date.

Meanwhile, most parents of students appear bewildered how teachers will fit a week’s worth of instruction into a single hour of class. Commenting on this unprecedented situation, some parents are whispering to each other, “They say there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the country, but seeing how they’re going this far, isn’t something going on?”

According to the source, students in Pyongyang are taking autumn semester classes online through North Korea’s intranet. The source explained that online classes are possible in Pyongyang in contrast to other regions of the country. 

“Because nearly all students attending central universities in Pyongyang have a notebook computer – regardless if they’re from Pyongyang itself or have come from outside the city – classes are being taught through video lectures,” he said. “Students in junior and senior middle schools and primary schools are also taking video lectures if they have a notebook computer at home. Students without notebook computers receive lessons from teachers who visit their homes.” 

According to the source, Pyongyang Senior Middle School No.1 and East Pyongyang Senior Middle School No.1 are special cases: “They educate future cadres so, for them, the state has ensured that students [at these schools] without notebook computers can buy them at the state-set price [KPW 180,000].”

Please direct any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.

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Ha Yoon Ah is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about her articles to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.