SINGAPORE - Most students across Singapore returned to school on Monday (March 23), the first day after the week-long March holidays.
Some are serving a 14-day leave of absence after returning from trips abroad during the holidays, as part of stricter measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus announced by the Ministry of Education (MOE) last week.
The leave of absence would apply to students and staff of schools, pre-schools and student care centres who returned from overseas on or after March 14, MOE had said.
Students who have to miss classes will be supported through home-based learning programmes.
The Straits Times has contacted the ministry for more information.
Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said in a Facebook post on Monday afternoon that additional safe distancing measures are in place in schools, after visiting a few of them in the morning.
These include exam-style seating for pupils from Primary 3; fixed group-cluster seating for Primary 1, Primary 2 and MOE kindergarten children; wipe-down routines; and assigned seating in canteens and play areas.
"Schools seemed a bit quieter with some students serving their leave of absence or stay-home notice," said Mr Ong. "But they all took the precautionary measures in their stride. They understand that the measures are necessary to keep them safe."
He added: "We are doing our best to keep students and staff safe in school so that students can continue learning in a familiar environment, with a familiar routine. Let us all do our part to make that happen."
Many parents have recently voiced their concerns, with some asking why the holidays were not extended, prompting Mr Ong to address such issues in an earlier post on Facebook on Sunday.
The minister cited scientific evidence, the extra precautions and a desire to reduce disruptions as key considerations in allowing students to resume classes.
On Monday, some parents made efforts to avoid the morning crowds, while others said they hoped the ministry would give students a home-based learning option, given the evolving situation.
Housewife Joanna Tan, 40, said she usually takes a public bus with her seven-year-old daughter to Paya Lebar Methodist Girls' School (Primary). But they left the house 10 minutes earlier on Monday morning to catch a less crowded bus, and arrived at the school at 7am.
"After school, we also walked one bus stop up so we wouldn't have to wait with the crowds."
Madam Priscilla Yeow, 44, said her Secondary 2 son and Primary 6 daughter also went to school on Monday.
"We're definitely worried and the situation around the world is very bad. But I think our Government has implemented good border controls and schools are taking a lot of precautions, like suspending co-curricular activities," she said.
She added: "My daughter is on the school bus but for the next two weeks, if my son has to travel during peak hours, I will make arrangements to pick him up instead."
Madam Yeow, who helps out with a family business, said suspending school would have a huge impact on working parents.
"If everybody is socially responsible, obeys the stay-home notice if they go overseas, it should be alright," she said.
But the spike in the number of imported cases last week made some parents like Madam Diana Ismail decide to keep their children at home instead.
The 41-year-old business owner's four sons will stay at home this week while she monitors the situation. One of them is in pre-school, another in primary school and the oldest two are in secondary school.
"My concern is that some parents had gone abroad and are now on stay-home notice, but their children can still go to school if they didn't travel," she said.
Madam Diana added: "My sons are in four different schools and they have to take public transport, so I just want to minimise any possible contact with more people... My mum, who lives with us, is in her 60s and not in good health, so I have to take care of her too."
Perhaps the March school break could have been extended by a week or two, and the June holidays could be used for lessons to make up for the curriculum time lost, she suggested.
"Wouldn't it be simpler for everyone to have e-learning, and maybe employers could allow parents to take turns to work from home in this pandemic?"
Another parent, Madam Claire Chan, 40, had kept her two children - one in kindergarten and one in primary school - at home for about a month, from Jan 28 to Feb 23.
"Both my children have asthma. They routinely experience complications leading to pneumonia from simple viral infections," she said.
"We cannot afford for them to be sick because it will take a lot of investigative work to determine whether they are down with Covid-19."
Her son went back to school to sit his term tests at the end of February. The school has in place measures such as getting pupils to wash their hands diligently and wiping down their classroom, said Madam Chan.
Ms Wang Peiqi and her family are on stay-home notice after returning from Thailand last Wednesday. Ms Wang, 36, whose sons are aged five and 10, said she is waiting for more instructions about home-based learning. Her older son's form teacher video-calls her every day to check on his temperature, and makes sure he is home.
The sales executive said: "Working from home isn't easy; we can't go out and getting groceries is a hassle."
For now, she keeps her sons busy with homework or tasks like drawing.
Added the Singaporean: "Thailand was very quiet and many shops were closed. Taxi drivers refused to take us on two occasions and people avoided us because we're Chinese. We're thankful to be back in Singapore.
"It's safer to be at home than to risk any possible spread because we don't know if we have the virus and we just don't know it yet."