Pre-schools grappling with Covid-19 rules as more children, staff infected

Pre-schoolers at Far Eastern Kindergarten queueing to wash their hands before snack time. PHOTO: FAR EASTERN KINDERGARTEN

SINGAPORE - The nationwide surge of Covid-19 infections has left many pre-schools struggling to cope as more young children are hit by the Omicron variant.

Eleven principals and operators told The Sunday Times that as more pre-schoolers and staff get infected, they are dealing with a dizzying load imposed by stringent, ever-changing health protocols.

In February, the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) tasked pre-schools with identifying close contacts of confirmed cases for the Ministry of Health (MOH) and informing parents about cases.

Centres also have to ensure that children issued with health risk warnings (HRWs) have tested negative with antigen rapid tests (ARTs) before entering the school, among other things, they said.

Nanyang Kindergarten principal Magdalene Ang said the challenge grows when some parents do not inform the school that their children have contracted the virus.

"And we have to be on standby 24/7 to handle submissions, contact tracing and dissemination of information to parents and staff," she said.

To keep pre-schools safe, staff have had to prevent children from entering school premises if their parents failed to administer ARTs for those with HRWs.

Anglican Preschool Services deputy director of corporate services and Covid-19 coordinator Mabel Wang said one of its large centres has set up a separate queue for parents who have not provided evidence of administering an ART to their child.

The load of Covid-19 protocols and teaching is compounded when staff themselves get Covid-19.

Almost all the pre-schools that ST spoke to said they are manpower-strapped, especially those without a pool of relief teachers.

Madam Shirley Tan, executive director of Catholic Preschool Education, which oversees 10 centres, said: "The greatest headache is having a teacher test positive.

"Who's going to look after these children? They are not like adults, who can manage themselves."

There have been instances when principals had to cook meals for the school or teach in classes because their employees are down with Covid-19, she added.

After four of eight staff tested positive for Covid-19 two weeks before Chinese New Year, Little Kinder Montessori director Yvonne Law had to stagger operating hours to keep one of her centres running without overworking those who were still healthy.

"We were very thankful that our parents were supportive and understanding; and that helped us ride through that period when we had a temporary manpower crunch," she said.

Pre-schools also have to deal with frustrated staff and parents of children who are still required to be tested despite having recovered from Covid-19 without seeing a doctor.

Ms Wang said: "It's hard for them to understand because they followed national Covid-19 protocols and yet, because they do not have a doctor's memo to verify their recovery, they have to continue to be swabbed and bear some cost of testing."

Keeping track of changing regulations poses yet another challenge for pre-schools, which also have to deal with a barrage of questions from confused parents.

While ECDA's guidelines are spelt out clearly, they change quite frequently - twice in the past two weeks - which can cause confusion when implementing them, the management team of Swallows and Amazons Kindergarten said.

Dr Richard Yen, founder and managing director of Ednovation, which manages 14 pre-schools and three franchised centres in Singapore, said some parents are still confused about why HRWs are not issued to those who test positive using self-administered ARTs, even though recent rules do not require them.

These frequent changes occur partly because ECDA fine-tunes its guidelines following feedback from principals and operators, said Ms Wang. 

For instance, earlier measures at the start of the pandemic mandated deep cleaning for every Covid-19 case detected.

Pre-schools had to spend thousands of dollars to hire an external party to clean the premises whenever a case was detected, said Ms Law.

Far Eastern Kindergarten principal Oh Chui Hwa said that after several operators flagged their cost concerns, ECDA allowed pre-schools to implement their own cleaning and disinfection regime.

Madam Dawn Choy, founder and operator of Dreamkids Kindergarten, is appealing for the authorities to supply more ART kits because the kindergarten has used up its two-month supply meant for rostered routine testing.

Previously, many of her staff had been close contacts of Covid-19 cases and could not collect ART kits before they were issued HRWs. So they had to use kits supplied from the school to test themselves before returning to the centre.

To help pre-schools cope with the rise in cases, parents should not take children to school if their child is unwell and be socially responsible to keep the school updated, said Nanyang Kindergarten's Ms Ang.

As more get vaccinated, pre-school leaders expressed hope that Covid-19 measures will be eased so that teachers can focus more on teaching and children may play freely again.

"It is challenging for teachers to maintain safe distancing almost every minute and give quality time while overseeing groups of children during lesson time and at outdoor play," said Little Seeds Preschool (St Andrew's) principal Candice Koh.

Ms Oh added: "Young children can't learn socio-emotional skills well without facial expressions and interactions. How can they learn such skills with two-thirds of their face covered up?" 

Last Wednesday (Feb 16), the multi-ministry task force tackling Covid-19 announced changes to measures, including the replacement of HRWs with five-day health risk notices - and ST understands that ECDA guidelines will soon be updated according to these changes.

Guidelines for pre-schools when Covid-19 cases are detected

Q: What should pre-schools do when children or staff test positive for Covid-19 with a self-administered test?

Those who test positive using ART kits at home and are asymptomatic should inform the pre-school and self-isolate for 72 hours.

If they do not visit a test centre to take a supervised self-administered ART, they will not be counted as a confirmed case in MOH's records.

The schools can opt to inform parents about self-administered ART positive cases so that parents can make an informed decision about whether to send their child to school.

If the second ART taken after 72 hours is negative, the employee or child from the school may continue with his or her daily activities, including returning to the pre-school.

Staff or children who are unwell and test positive with ARTs at home should seek medical attention.

Q: What should pre-schools do when a child or employee has tested positive for Covid-19 at a clinic or test centre?

The Ministry of Health (MOH) will no longer inform pre-schools about positive cases.

Pre-schools are required to identify close contacts of confirmed cases in schools and submit their details to MOH within four hours upon being notified of that the case is confirmed.

For children with symptoms, close contacts are those who were present within two days prior to the confirmed case's date of onset of symptoms.

For children without symptoms, close contacts are those who were present within two days prior to the date of the confirmed case's ART or polymerase chain reaction test.

MOH will issue HRWs for close contacts within 24 to 48 hours, and pre-schools must confirm with close contacts if they have received these warnings.

If close contacts do not receive a HRW within 24 to 48 hours, pre-schools will contact MOH for further clarification.

Q: What are the protocols for disinfection following the identification of a confirmed case at a pre-school?

Deep cleaning is not necessary so long as the pre-school has a regime of cleaning and disinfection to prevent surface transmission of Covid-19.

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