Coronavirus: Education Minister Ong Ye Kung responds to concerns on schools reopening

A photo taken on Feb 25, 2020 shows two school boys with masks at Junction 8. Education Minister Ong Ye Kung cited scientific evidence, extra precautions, and a desire to reduce disruptions as key considerations in allowing students to resume classes. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

SINGAPORE - Education Minister Ong Ye Kung responded to parents' concerns about schools reopening on Monday (March 23), citing scientific evidence, extra precautions, and a desire to reduce disruptions as key considerations in allowing students to resume classes.

His Facebook post on Sunday came after Singapore announced it would bar all short-term visitors from entering or transiting through the country from 11.59pm on Monday, to reduce the risk of imported coronavirus cases.

Said Mr Ong: "Part of the reason for the tougher border measures is to ensure we keep Singapore as safe as possible, so that daily activities, like going to work, eating out and attending school, can go on."

He noted that he has received many e-mails and messages from parents, with some asking why the March holidays were not extended, especially given the rising numbers of imported Covid-19 cases and impending border closures.

Others, including several students, urged the Ministry of Education (MOE) to keep schools open, as they would like to go to school, he added.

Setting out MOE's thinking on the matter, he said Covid-19 does not affect the young as much as it does adults - echoing remarks made by Professor Dale Fisher, chair of the World Health Organisation's Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network.

"Neither is there evidence to show that the young are vectors or spreaders of the virus," he said. "The reverse appears to be the case, where the young get infected by adults at home."

None of the students in Singapore who contracted Covid-19 caught it from school, he added.

"In this context, it may not be a bad idea for our children to spend the bulk of their day in school, where lessons and activities are arranged such that they mingle only with their classmates, who are less susceptible to the virus than adults," Mr Ong said.

"They will be quite a resilient group. If we close schools, many will not stay home, but may run around in the community and mingle with a lot more people, exposing themselves to more risk."

The minister also said closing schools would also disrupt the lives of many people, particularly parents who are both working, and who have limited childcare options.

"We are particularly concerned about parents who are healthcare workers and providers of essential services."

Various measures will help keep students safe, he said, pointing to the Government's existing leave of absence and stay-home notice policy, as well as checks on people's travel history at school gates, which will be done as an extra precaution.

Students will also only spend their time with those in their classes, with co-curricular activities suspended for two weeks.

They will sit apart in class and be reminded to wash their hands regularly and avoid touching their faces.

Those who are not feeling well - be it with a cough or sore throat - will be placed in an isolation room or sent home, he added.

"Implemented together, these measures will serve as a robust layer of system defence, complementing the natural defence children may already have, to enable school to continue," he said.

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