SINGAPORE - There are no plans to close schools yet, said Education Minister Ong Ye Kung on Friday (Feb 14) morning.
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, whereas schools have cleaning and disinfection routines to keep a school environment safe.
Mr Ong said the second disadvantage of shutting schools is the opposite of the first - 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 simulate a school environment, where it's airy, 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's 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 many 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 alternate 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 schools have taken include suspending large gatherings or communal activities such as mass assemblies and school camps, and staggered recess timings.
Mr Ong noted that schools had been 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. That was the purpose of suspending schools (then)... 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 on Saturday (Feb 15). The campaign's objectives include helping pupils cultivate 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 called the Soaper 5, with each character tagged to a personal hygiene habit.
For example, Hands Down Hana reminds pupils not to touch their face, while Mask Up Mei Mei tells them to wear a mask if they are unwell.
Primary 3 pupil Shen Yi Ping said his teacher has been teaching his class 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."