COVID-19: No plans for school closure yet, says Education Minister

Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung. (PHOTO: Dhany Osman / Yahoo News Singapore)

SINGAPORE — Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said on Friday (14 February) that there are no plans yet to close schools due to the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak.

Instead, the focus now is on helping students raise their personal hygiene standards and practise social responsibility.

Ong was speaking on the sidelines of a visit to First Toa Payoh Primary School, where he helped launch a campaign to rally students against the COVID-19 virus ahead of Total Defence Day on Saturday.

He said that, while students’ parents are concerned that two of the confirmed coronavirus cases in Singapore are educators, their call to close schools is “a very difficult decision, with a lot of pros and cons”.

Infection can happen at home too

“What are the pros? For many parents, the pros are that, ‘I keep the child at home, I can look after the child and feel a sense of security’,” he said.

“But there are significant cons. One is that infections do happen at home, and not all homes are airy and have sunlight – some homes are not well-ventilated. When parents and family members go out to work, they can also bring back infections – infections do happen at home.

“Whereas in schools, with routines like this, regular cleaning and disinfection by our team of cleaners, we can actually keep the school environment very clean.”

Older children don’t really stay at home

Another con is that older children do not really stay at home during school closures.

“To go out is good – it simulates a school environment where it is airy, you get to the open, you exercise, you are under the sun. (This) builds their resilience and immunity. But at the same time, you are also mingling in public spaces,” Ong explained.

“Whereas in school, they are kept within this environment with the protocol (in place), with teachers repeatedly reminding and bringing them to wash their hands, repeatedly reminding them not to touch their face, repeatedly making sure that anyone who comes in with a fever or who is not feeling well is sent back to rest at home (or to see a doctor).

“Today, in school, it is actually a much more regimented and cleaner environment. That’s why we are saying that we are trying our best to call on our 33,000 educators to make schools one of the safest places against this virus.”

Big disruptions to parents’, students’ lives

Finally, school closures may bring about big disruptions to many parents’ and students’ lives.

“At the beginning, we may feel safe, but as schools continue to be closed, after a while, normalcy is disrupted. Parents will be scrambling, ‘How to look after my child in the day when I have to work?’ and the alternative childcare arrangement may not be safer than school,” Ong said.

“Also, over a longer period of time with your life disrupted, it can give rise to sadness, despair, even a bit of fear. Those feelings are not to be underestimated.”

Schools were closed for part of the SARS outbreak in 2003, but reopened before the outbreak ended. Ong said circumstances were different then, compared to the current COVID-19 outbreak.

“The purpose of closing schools during that period was to beef up our systems,” he explained. “That was when we made sure every child had a thermometer, every school gate had temperature checks, and all the school protocols were put in place.

“All those systems are, today, in place, so we don’t have a need to close schools.”

Lesson packages, Total Defence Day campaign

The Ministry of Education (MOE) has already implemented measures to curb coronavirus infection across schools. These measures include suspending large gatherings or communal activities, such as mass assemblies and school camps, and staggering recess timings.

Students and staff with recent travel history to mainland China are also required to take 14-day leaves of absence from schools.

All primary schools, secondary schools and junior colleges have been given a lesson package entitled “Together We Keep Singapore Strong”. Key segments in the lessons include:

  • Recognising how COVID-19 has impacted students and others in the community, as well as the actions taken to address the situation,

  • Recognising that students can play their part by practising good hygiene

  • Empowering students to identify current community needs resulting from the COVID-19 situation, take action and be an advocate in the community.

The Total Defence Day campaign, which will be accompanied by collaterals such as a rap, poster and stickers, will also be launched on MOE’s social media platforms.

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