COVID-19 infections are on the rise in Singapore. To fight against this, the government has announced tighter social distancing measures, including the closure of entertainment venues and tuition centres, the suspension of religious services, and even limitations on funerals.
Taking effect from March 27th onwards, people in Singapore need to observe at least a one meter distance in public from others in both queues and areas where there is seating. Anyone flouting these regulations will be guilty of a jailable offence. Written in no uncertain terms, these stern measures are a reflection of the gravity of the COVID-19 situation at hand.
But, to the worry of many parents, schools still remain open.
With 18 new infections at PCF Sparkletots on March 25th, there exists a growing sentiment amongst parents that the Singapore government should announce nationwide school closures, or at least have extended the March school break. In fact, over 11,000 people have signed a petition to close schools. After all, as COVID-19 ravages countries around the world, many governments have responded by shutting schools, including in South Korea, Italy, Japan, and France, so why not Singapore? And, if schools continue to remain open, should parents be worried about their children’s potential exposure to the virus?
Responding to queries from parents, Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung explained why schools remain open via a Facebook post. The most important reason why the Ministry of Education (MOE) decided to reopen schools after the March break despite the rising number of cases is that COVID-19 does not affect young children as much as adults. This finding is corroborated by data in South Korea and Italy, where the percentage of infected children aged 9 and younger is less than 1%. This is similar to other coronaviruses like SARS, which tend to infect fewer children and more adults.
Tanglin Trust School, one of Singapore’s international schools which has a student body of around 2,700, has already shut down and shifted to a remote learning program since March 18th. While a consensus about what is the best course of action moving forward hasn’t been reached, continued inaction for local institutions does not seem to be a feasible path forward given the current trajectory of local infections.
Another important consideration was childcare. Even if schools closed, some parents might still have to work, especially if they were employed in the healthcare sector or were working in any essential services. This might end up being more disruptive to families. Instead, keeping them in schools while employing more stringent safety and hygiene measures might end up being safer for them. But, with so many students in schools, are they really that much safer?
Most of the new cases in Singapore are imported, which is to be expected as students studying abroad are recalled and families return from vacations taken during the March holidays. Naturally, there is some concern amongst parents as to whether their children might be sitting in a classroom with a student who has recently returned from, say, some parts of Europe or the U.S., where there are hundreds of new cases daily.
To help stem any potential community spread from returning travellers, the government has put in place much stricter measures, including a mandatory 14-day stay home notice for all travellers, regardless of which country they are coming from. They have also recently announced that young children (which, in this case, refers to pre-school and primary school students) would have to be on a 14-day leave of absence (LOA) if anyone in their household is coming back from abroad.
What this essentially means is that it is very unlikely that any child will be exposed to the virus while at school, unless another student has contracted it locally through a cluster.
Schools have been ramping up safety and hygiene measures to help manage the COVID-19 situation. Amongst the more conventional efforts are frequent temperature checks, monitoring visitor activity, and regular cleaning of the premises.
In addition to these measures, however, schools are also staggering recess timings, suspending large gatherings like assemblies, and even cancelling the National School Games. To keep up with the tighter safe distancing restrictions, even tighter regulations have been announced, including making students sit further apart in classrooms and cancelling co-curricular activities.
Back in February, when Raffles Institution confirmed a case of COVID-19, they suspended classes for a day to conduct thorough cleaning and disinfection. Similarly, after parents of students from the Singapore American School (SAS) and United World College South East Asia (UWCSEA) were confirmed as COVID-19 cases, massive disinfection was carried out on their campuses.
The most recent announcement on March 27, by the Ministry of Education, calls for primary and secondary schools as well as junior colleges and centralised institutes rolling out one day of home-based learning per week from April.
Understandably parents are anxious about schools still remaining open amidst the rising number of COVID-19 cases worldwide.
However, with the many measures and restrictions put in place by the government and schools, it seems like a lot of thought has been put into how to make schools safe for our children. With frequent cleaning and disinfecting, schools may end up being cleaner, safer spaces than many others, such as malls or restaurants.
That said, school closures are not completely ruled out. Depending on the situation, it may end up being a necessary restriction to stem the spread of COVID-19. So, regardless of whether you think schools should be closed, you should still prepare for the possibility, so that if it does happen, you can take ownership of your child’s time at home.
If your child is showing symptoms of COVID-19, including a fever, cough, or other respiratory ailments, You must see a doctor immediately. You can go to a Public Health Preparedness Clinic (PHPC) or a polyclinic, where the doctors will assess your symptoms and if need be, refer you to the hospital for follow-up.
But, if your child is not ill and not showing any symptoms of the virus, then you might want to consider keeping them at home and engaging a house call doctor instead. Having a doctor come to your house is particularly useful during this time when you might want to practice safe distancing and avoid exposing your children to potential germs outside.