Wuhan virus: Experts consulted in decision not to delay schools' reopening after Chinese New Year break, says MOE

Westwood Primary School pupils taking their temperature with their personal thermometers on their first day back at school on Jan 29, 2020. PHOTO: WESTWOOD PRIMARY SCHOOL

SINGAPORE - The Ministry of Education (MOE) had sought advice from medical experts and considered delaying the opening of schools for a week or two, like what Hong Kong has done.

But it concluded that "it is not necessary to do so, because there is currently no evidence of community spread of the virus in Singapore".

Schools here reopened on Wednesday (Jan 29) after the Chinese New Year break.

"Ours is a different situation compared to Hong Kong's. Hong Kong is closer to the epicentre of the Wuhan virus outbreak and is closely connected to mainland China. The number of students and staff returning from mainland China is likely to be many times ours," the ministry said in a frequently asked questions (FAQ) post on its website on Wednesday.

It assessed that the number of students and staff returning from China recently is manageable, and a 14-day leave of absence will "be more targeted, while allowing schools to open and life to carry on as normally as possible, which is an important aspect to safeguard in an emergency situation", MOE added.

The move applies to those in MOE kindergartens, primary and secondary schools, special education schools, as well as junior colleges and polytechnics. It includes Millennia Institute and the Institute of Technical Education.

It is expected to affect some 800 students. The Straits Times has asked the ministry for updated figures.

Other issues the post addressed included the difference between a leave of absence and a quarantine order.

The former is a precautionary measure and not legally binding, while the latter has legal force with severe penalties for non-compliance.

While MOE "strongly urged those on leave of absence to be socially responsible and comply with it to prevent possible transmission of infections", it added that students and staff on leave of absence do not need to stay at home and be isolated all the time.

But they should minimise time spent in public places and contact with others, and monitor their health and their temperature, among other precautions.

Students should also follow their home-based learning plan closely to continue with their learning, said the ministry.

As for students and staff who did not come back from China recently, but had relatives from China visiting them, the leave of absence need not apply.

MOE explained: "Like all precautionary measures, we have to decide how wide to cast the net. If we include those who have visitors from mainland China, the same logic should apply to those whose friends or families have recently been to China. The net can grow exponentially wide.

"Those who have close contact with people on leave of absence should closely monitor their health and adopt good hygiene practices. Those who feel unwell should seek medical assistance."

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The ministry also addressed concerns that designating university dorms as government quarantine facilities would put the wider student population at risk.

It said that the three such university facilities - designated blocks at the National University of Singapore's Prince George's Park Residences, Nanyang Technological University's Graduate Hall 1, and Singapore Management University's Block 83 Prinsep Street - "have always been part of the Government's national contingency plan for a disease outbreak".

"The designated hostels will only be primarily activated when a student in our educational institutions or schools is required to serve a quarantine order and does not have suitable accommodation," said MOE.

Those who are served with quarantine orders must stay in their designated rooms at all times within the allocated period. They are not allowed to use common facilities within the quarantine facility. No visitors will be allowed, and food and all necessary supplies will be delivered to them.

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung, who shared a link to the FAQ post on Facebook on Wednesday, said the multi-ministry task force - set up to direct the Government's response to the Wuhan coronavirus - will monitor the situation and adjust the measures when necessary.

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