Schools should be closed! And that’s impression I get after running though the comments received by our Minister for Education, Ong Ye Kung after he took to Facebook on 22 March to give his reasons on why schools should reopen after the March school holidays. From the comments below his post, it seems many parents are concerned and disagreed with his decision.
To support his decision to let schools stay open, he gave the following reasons:
- Scientific evidence showing that children are more resilient to the virus compared to adults.
- Potential disruptions school closures will cause, especially to healthcare workers and those providing other forms of essential services
- The precautionary measures taken by the authorities, in consultation with healthcare professionals, should help keep our children safe.
Among the measures he mentioned includes Leave of Absence (LOA) and Stay Home Notices (SHN) plus 100% checks on travel history as well as the usual social distance, symptom checking, personal hygiene reminders and suspension of CCA.
Minister Ong relied on the advice of Professor Dale Fisher to support his ministry’s decision. But when queried by the Straits Time on whether we should be worried about children passing Covid-19 to the elderly, his response was,
“That is another question we do not yet know the answer to. However, if they are asymptomatic, they are less likely to do so.”
That in all honesty does not sound too reassuring to me. Not when there are other news sprouting out that a:
While we can argue that preschool education here is regulated by the ECDA and not directly by the MOE, it still shows that making kids got to school, be it pre-school, primary, secondary, JC or tertiary classes, has it’s dangers.
In the news is also new statistics showing that young adults between 20 to 29 make up the largest bulk of hospitalisation here. Again while it can be argued that many of them caught the bug while overseas, 22% (ie 30) of them got it here. Our University students fall into this category and universities too are not closed.
Perhaps we should all take note of this warning from WHO – Young People are Not Invincible.
And to quote California Governor Gavin Newsom, after the death of the teen who tested positive in California, “What more evidence do you need than the loss of a young person’s life?”
True, the closing of schools can disrupt some families where both parents work. True, we should support our healthcare and other essential workers. But then again, many have their extended families with whom they can rely on. For those who don’t, preschools and schools can remain open to help these families out, like what they are doing in the UK now. And with most kids away, school will automatically become a safer place like in the BBC example (automatic social distancing.)
The million dollar question is, “are these measures sufficient?” And to that, here are my thoughts…
LOA and SHN
There are already known cases of people falsifying travel declarations as well as cheating on LOA and SHN. How sure are we that some kiasu parents will not get their children to lie about travel history just to avoid LOA or SHN? For what purpose? So that their children will not miss lessons and lose out?
Despite their best efforts, teachers are not trained healthcare professionals. While fever may be more clearcut, many coronavirus victims, especially the younger ones, only display mild symptoms as the Minister has noted. Will teachers be able to differentiate between kids with mild symptoms, like sore throat or cough vis-à-vis those with sinus problems and sensitive nose?
Social Distancing And Personal Hygiene
At present social distancing in Singapore is measured by being at least 1 m apart. Is this even sufficient when a study in China already indicated that the virus can travel up to 4.5 metres in an aircon bus environment and another independent study outside of China indicated that the virus can remain in air particles for up to 3 hours.
Some of our students study in aircon classrooms here. My worry is that no amount of hand washing and/or disinfecting of classroom tables and chairs will protect them from a virus circulating in the air. From my understanding, you need a properly fitted N95 mask for that, or a double barrier protection of having everyone in surgical mask as highlighted by Dr Colleen Thomas, an Internal Medicine Specialist practicing in Singapore and her esteemed doctor colleagues.
Also, how sure is the Minister that every school is practicing social distancing? Has there been checks done on whether schools are in compliance? Issuing a measure is very different from properly administering and implementing it. A measure imposed by those at the top may not always be followed through by those below. A good example is social distancing; the measures are there but today’s (29 March 2020) Straits Times’ front page had a picture of Singaporeans obviously overcrowding a place, with a caption that prominently read – “Is this Social Distancing?”
Also while the ministry has said that school dismissals will be staggered to reduce overcrowding on public transport, how will our kids make their way to school during the morning peak hour congestion? How do they practice social distancing then?
My Plea to The Minister…
In all, I applaud the Government for doing its best to keep the economy running amidst these tough times, when many countries have already been forced to lock down. The initial response by our Government was magnificent, has won international praise and makes me proud to be a Singaporean. But given this rising trend of unlinked cases reported day after day, plus death of teenagers from other parts of the world, is choosing to let schools remain open too big a gamble for us to take? Will we, as a nation, live to regret this decision in years to come?
And if the Government insists on letting schools remain open, why not give parents the option of letting their children study through home based e-learning instead? Those who feel safer having their kids at home can easily choose this option then.
It’s good that even as I’m writing this, schools are moving towards a 4 day week by April 2020, and remaining open on that 5th day for parents unable to find alternative childcare arrangements, but is this really enough?
And my plea to you, dear Minister sir… please reconsider your stand on letting schools remain open.