Closing all schools not an easy decision, says Education Minister Heng Swee Keat

SINGAPORE - Closing all primary and secondary schools on Friday (Sept 25) was not an easy decision, said Education Minister Heng Swee Keat.

Many people would be affected by the decision, and the authorities must take care that students' learning does not suffer, even as their health takes priority, Mr Heng said in a Facebook post on Friday night.

However, he was relieved that many parents were able to make childcare arrangements in time.

In the post, Mr Heng also highlighted that decisions were based on the weather forecast for haze, acknowledging that the actual situation the next day can go either way.

For instance, the forecast could indicate hazy skies the next day, and the actual day could indeed be so. Or it could be the total opposite where the skies are clear.

In another scenario, the forecast of a clear day the next day could be correct. Or it could go the other way: people waking up to hazy skies. If the latter happens, it would be chaotic, as the authorities cannot suddenly cancel school on the actual morning itself.

"It will be too disruptive to the almost half a million children who go to school and their families," he said. "Many parents will be in a difficult position, and their workplaces and colleagues will have a hard time with last minute changes too. Nor will everyone be able to get the message so late."

However, Mr Heng urged everyone to be prepared that such a scenario could happen.

"We must learn to live with uncertainty - we can take sensible precautions, share care arrangements, pay attention to those among us who need special care," he wrote.

Using it as an example to teach "our children to live with uncertainty", Mr Heng added: "We can teach them to take things in their stride, stay calm, keep a look out for their friends - we can show this by example."

Indeed, the children he met on Friday showed that they can handle uncertainty, he said.

The Minister had visited some schools and met teachers and students whose parents were unable to make alternative care arrangements.

A boy from the lower-primary level told him that "there's nothing to be scared of! There's no monster", the Minister wrote on Facebook.

The boy's friends agreed with him, Mr Heng recounted in his post. The children told the Minister: "It's just a haze. Stay inside. Close your windows. There are safety tips on the news."

They added that they and their parents were not worried; they just carried on.

"This is resilience - from primary school children!" wrote Mr Heng, adding that the children are "tough cookies".

He also noted that some secondary school students called up their teachers to ask for notes and revision exercises because they wanted to continue learning, even if schools were closed.

"I am proud of our students' excellent learning attitude," he said.

Mr Heng said that his ministry will "keep schools open as far as possible, as long as conditions are not adverse".

He added: "We cannot control the things that happen outside of Singapore. But within Singapore, we can stay resilient and united. We can and must prepare for the worst, and care for one another."

calyang@sph.com.sg