Coronavirus: Why not close all schools for now?

A teacher at Farrer Park Primary School instructs Primary 2 pupils to check their temperature on Jan 7, 2020.

Schools and kindergartens will reopen on Monday as planned after this week's holiday, but with stricter measures. Straits Times senior education correspondent Sandra Davie answers some of the questions that parents have over the school reopening and new measures.

Q Does the 14-day leave of absence order apply to those who left the country on Friday, March 13?

A Students and staff of schools, pre-schools and student care centres will be given a 14-day leave of absence (LOA) if they returned from overseas on or after March 14 - the start of the March school holidays. The order would also apply to those who left on March 13.

The date of their return to Singapore, on or after March 14, will be taken as day zero of the 14 days.

Q How will schools support students on LOA with their studies?

A The support involves a variety of methods; it need not be confined to e-learning or learning with computers.

Schools will plan and implement a home-based learning programme that best suits the lessons and the needs of their students.

For example, schools may ask students to undertake specific pieces of homework or reading from their textbooks. Sometimes, for subjects such as art, schools may drop off hard copy packages at a student's home.

Schools may also ask students to go through online materials in the Singapore Student Learning Space or the Learning Management Systems. Teachers will also be able to monitor the students' learning progress through these systems.

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Q Why don't the Ministry of Education (MOE) and the Ministry of Social and Family Development just close all schools and pre-schools for now, until the situation improves. What do the experts say?

A MOE has said before that closing schools and pre-schools will disrupt many lives.

As Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said in his Facebook post yesterday, if schools were closed, many parents, including those working in hospitals and providing essential services, will not be able to go to work.

MOE does not rule out closing schools if absolutely required, but it is a major decision.

One thing to consider is that even if all students stay at home, there is no guarantee against infection.

A lot of infection actually happens at home. It is also unrealistic to expect older children to stay at home. They will go out and inter-mingle.

On the other hand, in schools, large gatherings have been suspended to reduce inter-mingling drastically. There is also a strict regime of personal and group hygiene. Should there be wide community spread, which one hopes will not happen, schools can be one of the safest places in Singapore from the Covid-19 virus.

Britain has decided to order the closure of its schools till further notice, following the lead of Italy, Spain and France, which have reported thousands of virus cases.

One of the leading world authorities on infectious diseases, the American Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, said there is a role for school closure if students or staff become infected or as part of a larger community mitigation strategy.

But it also said that closures for a short while are unlikely to stem the spread of disease while causing significant disruption for families and schools, and those in jobs providing essential services, such as healthcare workers.

It said that waiting to enact school closures, later in the spread of disease, combined with other social distancing interventions, allows for optimal impact despite disruption.

It advises that where school closures are necessary, the anticipated academic and economic impacts and unintended impacts on disease outcomes must be planned for and mitigated.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 20, 2020, with the headline Coronavirus: Why not close all schools for now?. Subscribe