Coronavirus: 6 parents of international school students test positive; schools switch to remote learning

The school in Woodlands has 4,000 students and is currently on a spring break that began on March 21 and will last until March 29, 2020. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

SINGAPORE - Six parents whose children attend two international schools in Singapore have tested positive for Covid-19.

They are the Singapore American School (SAS) and the United World College of South East Asia (UWCSEA), with each having three parents diagnosed with the virus.

SAS' superintendent Tom Boasberg said all its three parents are hospitalised and are in good condition. None of them had visited the school.

"In all cases, the parents and their family members have fully followed Ministry of Health restrictions, including staying home immediately upon learning of the family member's confirmed case," said Mr Boasberg.

At the UWCSEA, which has two campuses in Dover and Tampines, three parents of its students are confirmed cases. None of its students and staff have the virus.

"None of these parents came to campus or attended a school event in the weeks before they were diagnosed with Covid-19," a spokesman said.

Messages have been recently circulating online about a recent gathering attended by SAS students, that has links to one of the parents who is a confirmed case.

In response to queries from The Straits Times, Mr Boasberg said the parent in question was found to have the virus on March 15 and he had been labelled an imported case.

Travelling alone, the man contracted the virus while in a European country, which was at that time not one of the countries that Singapore had advised against travel to.

He returned to Singapore on March 13 and sought medical advice the next day for the mild fever he was experiencing. The doctor sent him back home to rest.

Mr Boasberg said a swab test done on March 14 confirmed that the parent has the coronavirus and he was admitted to a hospital the next day.

The day before his diagnosis, one of his children, who attends SAS, was present at an event hosted by another student and came into contact with several other SAS students.

But Mr Boasberg said the father was neither at the event nor at school, and had no contact with students other than his child after returning from overseas.

"As soon as the father was diagnosed, this student stayed home and had no contact with other students," Mr Boasberg added.

The school, which is situated in Woodlands and has a 4,000 student body, is currently on a spring break that began last Saturday and will last until Sunday (March 29).

Mr Boasberg said the school is taking advantage of the break to conduct deep cleaning of its campus, having already stepped up cleaning efforts in the past two months.

The school had initiated home-based learning last Thursday and Friday, before the spring break started, with students staying at home while teachers went to school to give virtual lessons.

It will continue conducting distance learning for another week after spring break, while monitoring the situation in Singapore. Unless circumstances change, classes will resume at the school's campus on April 6.

Said Mr Boasberg: "Our overriding priority in our decisions is the health and safety of our community. We have seen that the vast majority of the recent uptick in cases in Singapore is from overseas returnees.

"We are aware that local schools in Singapore resumed classes on Monday, March 23. We normally are consistent with Singapore schools with regard to school openings and closings, and we respect the careful thought and analysis by the Singapore Government in making these decisions."

He added: "In this instance, however, we believe the different travel patterns of our community members require us to wait this extra week before we resume school to allow the new Singapore Government travel restrictions to take effect for a full two weeks."

As an added precaution, all students whose family members have travelled overseas will need to wait 14 days after their return before coming back to school, he said.

Other international schools have also switched to remote learning, or brought forward their spring breaks, in a bid to keep students at home.

The UWCSEA's term break, which was scheduled to start on Friday, began last Wednesday instead. Lessons will resume on April 6.

Said the spokesman: "The decision as to whether this is in the classrooms on campus, or via remote learning will be made closer to the date and communicated to our community directly.

"We are fully prepared for either eventuality and are currently working to support students and families impacted by announcements made by external examining bodies."

In the light of the coronavirus outbreak, the International Baccalaureate has scrapped its examinations in May, affecting students in schools here like Tanglin Trust School and Dulwich College Singapore.

Exam board Cambridge Assessment International Education also cancelled its International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) exams in May and June because of worldwide school closures.

Remote video URL

Tanglin Trust School, which has 2,800 students, has no confirmed cases among students or staff. The school started conducting e-learning last Thursday (March 19), and will continue until Friday, March 27. It will then close for a two-week holiday and classes will resume on April 13.

Mr Tom Evans, the school's director of marketing and communications, cited concerns about the recent travel histories of people connected with the school returning from abroad and said the school experienced operational difficulties caused by increasing travel restrictions.

A large number of people within the extended Tanglin community returned to Singapore from abroad in mid-March, including family members returning from work trips and students returning from universities and schools in Britain, said Mr Evans.

"The inability to be certain of people's travel histories within households was a significant factor in our deliberations," he said, adding that staff were concerned about their own health and there was a spike in student absenteeism.

It was becoming extremely difficult for senior leaders to carry out their duties in the daily administration of the school, and the closure of the border with Malaysia impacted many of our operations team members, he said.

The school will continue to monitor the situation and plans will be confirmed during the Easter break.

Other international schools are continuing lessons as per normal, while stepping up precautionary measures.

Mr Christian Soulard, principal of International French School (Singapore), said it has "no plans to close at this time", but has put in place extra hygiene procedures like twice-daily temperature-taking, and extra cleaning and disinfecting on school premises.

"Students are regularly reminded to practise good personal hygiene habits and social distancing. All extra-curricular activities have been postponed and large events and overseas trips, as well as day trips and excursions, have been cancelled," he said.

To be prepared, the school is conducting a trial for its home-based learning on Tuesday and Wednesday for students and teachers.

"This test will allow us to test various IT infrastructure, learning and communication tools while provide students and teachers with useful practice and experience," said Mr Soulard.

Fashion and lifestyle curator Samia Khan, 43, whose two boys attend SAS, said: "It's very unfortunate that the imported cases came from parents who had travelled, so it's timely to limit the exposure of students during these two weeks."

Image consultant Sujata Kumar, 41, whose twin girls go to UWCSEA in Dover, said the school has been proactive and transparent in sharing information about the situation.

"The spike in imported cases is a wake-up call, and in an international school environment, you'd never know where families have travelled and if they are taking necessary precautions."

Additional reporting by Jolene Ang

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.