Coronavirus outbreak

No plans to close schools yet, says Education Minister Ong Ye Kung

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung washing his hands together with pupils at First Toa Payoh Primary School yesterday. He was there to launch a campaign to rally pupils against the coronavirus, ahead of Total Defence Day today. The campaign's objectives
Education Minister Ong Ye Kung washing his hands together with pupils at First Toa Payoh Primary School yesterday. He was there to launch a campaign to rally pupils against the coronavirus, ahead of Total Defence Day today. The campaign's objectives include helping pupils to develop good personal hygiene habits and practise social responsibility. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

Extra precautions taken but situation will be monitored closely, he says

There are no plans to close schools yet, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said yesterday. It is a big and difficult decision with pros but also significant cons, he said.

"For many parents, the pro is that 'I can keep my child at home, I can look after my child and I feel a sense of safety'," he said.

But there are three downsides to closing schools in the light of the coronavirus outbreak, he told reporters during a visit to First Toa Payoh Primary School.

The first is that infections can happen even in homes, for example, if parents bring back germs from work outside. But schools have cleaning and disinfection routines to keep a school environment safe.

Mr Ong said the second disadvantage of shutting schools is that children may not stay at home all the time during a school closure.

He said: "So, they will go out, which is good... You get out in the open, you exercise, you get under the sun, which raises their resilience and immunity. But at the same time, they are also mingling in public spaces.

"In school, they are kept within this environment with a protocol, with teachers repeatedly reminding and bringing them to wash their hands, reminding not to touch their face, making sure that those who come in with a fever or are not feeling well are asked to rest at home.

"So, today in school, it is a much more regimented and cleaner environment."

The third disadvantage is one that is often underestimated, the minister said. "It is a big disruption to many parents and students' lives. At the beginning, we may feel safe, but as schools continue to be closed, after a while, normalcy is disrupted."

Parents who are working may have to make alternative childcare arrangements, and prolonged closure can also instil a sense of fear and despair, he added.

Closing schools would be "a big decision", said Mr Ong, adding: "We will consider and monitor the situation closely. As of now, I think we should keep schools going, but take extra precautions, as we have already done."

 
 
 
 

Some measures taken include suspending large gatherings or communal activities such as mass assemblies and school camps, and staggering recess timings.

Mr Ong noted that schools were closed for a while during the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) period to "beef up our systems".

"That was when we made sure every child had a thermometer, every school gate had temperature checks and all the school protocols were put in place... but all those systems are in place today."

Mr Ong was at First Toa Payoh Primary School to launch a campaign to rally pupils against the coronavirus, ahead of Total Defence Day today. The campaign's objectives include helping pupils to develop good personal hygiene habits and practise social responsibility.

The minister also joined a lesson at MK @ First Toa Payoh, a Ministry of Education kindergarten, where the children learnt a song that taught them how to wash their hands properly.

He also visited a Primary 6 class and learnt a rap song, created by MOE, with the pupils. They were introduced to five superhero characters, such as Hands Down Hana who reminds pupils not to touch their face, while Mask Up Mei Mei tells those unwell to wear a mask.

Primary 3 pupil Shen Yi Ping said his teacher has been teaching his classmates to wash their hands regularly with soap and water and not to touch their faces unnecessarily.

Added the nine-year-old: "Now, the school is very strict, and we have to do a health check every time we come to school."

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 15, 2020, with the headline 'No plans to close schools yet: Ong'. Print Edition | Subscribe