Two new clusters of confirmed coronavirus cases have been found in Singapore over the past few days, and they both, unfortunately, involve schools. How do Singaporeans feel about schools still being open in these times, and how prepared are we in the event of school closures if the government decides to enforce a remote-learning policy for our kids?
It all feels like we are one step closer to islandwide school closures with every few new cases recorded, especially if they are connected to schools and educational institutions, as this may lead to massive community spreads.
School closure may loom ahead with a surge in new coronavirus cases. Photo: iStock
The largest spike in cases so far, a record 73 cases was reported on 25 March. As of Thursday (26 March), linked to a cluster at the PAP Community Foundation (PCF) Sparkletots Preschool Centre at Fengshan Blk 126. A further 3 cases of infections among staff were also reported at Dover Court International School. A day before this, 6 parents, 3 each from both the Singapore American School (SAS) and the United World College of South East Asia (UWCSEA), were reported to have been infected with COVID-19.
All the schools and campuses mentioned above are currently closed for cleaning and thorough disinfecting. Further, the international schools mentioned together with a few others are already practising remote-learning while monitoring the current situation.
Rise in coronavirus cases
Are parents ready for schools to close?
With COVID-19 being declared as a global pandemic, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a televised address earlier this month (12 March) that the pandemic is expected to "continue for some time—a year, and maybe longer," and listed school closures as "extra brakes" that Singapore may apply in the event of spikes in cases, to help slow down community transmission of the virus.
However, despite Singapore still not raising it's Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) level to Red even though coronavirus cases have significantly increased since then, and the situation still being reported as remaining under control, it is every Singaporean parent's speculation that school closures are potentially around the bend, waiting to happen.
But what will it mean for you and your family if schools were to close?
What would closing schools mean for you and your family? Photo: iStock
Addressing common concerns by parents in a press release published by the Ministry of Education (MOE) on 25 March. as well as in a Facebook post, Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung reassured parents that the situation was being closely monitored and that parents will be given ample notice when the decision to close schools is made.
“Learning will continue regardless. But, if we need to suspend school as part of a larger national safe distancing effort to dampen the transmission of COVID-19 in Singapore, we will move to Home-based Learning or some form of blended learning. We are watching the situation closely and keeping all options open. When a decision is made, we will give parents advance notice," he stated in the MOE's press release.
Regardless of contingency plans in motion, however, there seem to be two divided groups of sentiment among parents in Singapore - with one group calling vehemently for schools to close as soon as possible, and others breathing a sigh of relief when the March holidays came and went but school reopening dates still stayed put.
What about my child's potential risk of exposure to coronavirus cases on public transport?
For those of us who are calling for school closure to be mandated as soon as possible, the fear is mostly of risk of potential exposure to children on public transport.
“Frankly, it is not the school cluster cases that worry me. The unlinked cases where the government does not know where the infection was contracted from, are what makes me anxious. They could have picked up the infection anywhere, even on public transport. I feel like they (children) should just stay home already!” says a parent who requested to be identified as Ms Goh. Her child is in Primary 5 who takes a twenty-minute bus ride every day to and from school.
This is apparently a very popular concern to which the Minister responded in his Facebook post that the government was actively advocating for "more employers to allow their staff to work from home, or allow for flexible hours" in order to make sure that there will be "fewer people on transport systems during peak periods, and hence less risk of infection."
"Many parents have suggested staggered hours and other measures for older students, to help reduce commuter traffic volume. MOE is actively considering them", the Minister further added.
However, he also cautioned that the virus is transmitted by "touching your face, or through prolonged exposure to an infected person, such as talking to him at close range for a long time. So cutting down on conversations on public transport, and washing your hands before and after your journey and not touching your face will go a long way."
Parents fear for their child's safety while using public transport. Photo: iStock
Does it make sense closing tuition centres and keeping schools open?
Another group of parents, such as one of the mums theAsianparent spoke to, Noreen Mohamed, whose child is currently in Primary 1 finds the decision to keep schools open while closing down tuition centres, is contrasting especially when there are far more students and staff in schools increasing higher chances of infection should one test positive.
However, Minister Ong draws a parable between school and tuition centres and explains the temporary closure of all MOE language centres, as well as private tuition and enrichment centres, as a means of doing away with something not essential to survival.
“For an adult, work is essential, entertainment less so. Hence we closed entertainment outlets. For a student, school is essential, but tuition and enrichment are not,” he notes
The Minister also added that with the suspension of all CCAs and extra-curricular activities, teams and clubs, and with staggered recess timings, the MOE has “arranged things such that students pretty much mingle only with their classmates.”
In the event of a confirmed case reported in school, the MOE can “contact trace very quickly and control the risk of virus spread by quarantining the class.”
This is not the case for tuition centres, and it carries a further potential risk of engaging other school students from many different schools and may spur a community attack and boom into something that is not controllable.
A further group of parents, like one mum theAsianparent spoke to who has two school-going children, feel the situation as offputting and as a reversal of roles, where the adults are now closeted and kids are let loose into the public with an invisible enemy on the streets.
“Feels a little weird. Most of the adults of my block are staying from work and all the children have gone out to school!” she said.
Coronavirus cases - not everyone looking forward to schools closing
But not everyone is looking forward to the potential closure of schools.
With many other parents - especially from dual-income families with both the mother and father employed, families with parents working in the healthcare sector, single-parent families, and families with members working shifts - the decision to close schools brings added stress to their lives.
When that happens, there arise logistical issues on childcare for such families.
Further questions stem up: Are companies going to afford more flexibility to their employees, or can working parents apply for urgent childcare leave? And are Student Care Centres (SCC) going to close up in the event of school closures?
"We are trying to keep work and school, which are essential for adults and children, going. SCCs are important in ensuring that work can continue; they help to care for students so that parents, especially those in the essential services like healthcare, can focus on their work. So yes, they will remain open but more precautions will be taken," the Minister clarified.
He also further advised parents to come to a mutual agreement with their employers if their work is office-based.
Further suggestions have been offered in a column published recently, on the possibility of one parent working from home while the other goes to the office, alternative childcare arrangements of grandparents, other relatives and family friends, and even an ingenious suggestion to have a classroom at every school be kept open for parents without alternative child-minders.
With so many uncertainties in store for us and with very little known in regard to patterns presented by COVID-19, Singaporean parents would do well to prepare ahead to face any situation that comes there way. There now exists a need to have in addition to plan A - plan B, C, D; all the way to plan Z perhaps, all the while trying to rally in and utilise any and all support systems, and to stay steadfast in the face of these new and unexpected challenges.