Why Singapore reopened schools despite coronavirus: They used science

Paterno Esmaquel II
Why Singapore reopened schools despite coronavirus: They used science
It’s in contrast to what many Filipinos perceive to be the necessary but haphazard lockdown of Luzon without clear rules and without considering its repercussions

SINGAPORE – Schools in Singapore reopened on Monday, March 23, after the students’ regular March holidays, despite the rising number of novel coronavirus cases in the city-state.

Singapore Education Minister Ong Ye Kung on Sunday, March 22, outlined Singapore’s reasons for deciding to reopen classes, providing a glimpse into how decisions are made to fight the coronavirus in Singapore. 

Their decision was based on science, as well as careful analysis of their society.

It’s in sharp contrast to what many Filipinos perceive to be the necessary but haphazard lockdown of the Philippines’ biggest island group, Luzon, without clear rules and without considering its effects on daily wage earners and even health workers who have no means to commute while public transport is suspended. (READ: [EDITORIAL] Emergency measures? Show us the plan first)

Ong explained there is much scientific evidence showing that COVID-19 affects adults more than the young.

There is also no evidence that the young are spreaders of the coronavirus, and the reverse seems to be the case – that adults at home affect the young, according to Ong, citing Dale Fisher, group director of medicine at the National University Health System and chair of the World Health Organization Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network. 

 In fact, he said, there have only been a few students hit by COVID-19 in Singapore, and “every single one caught it outside of their schools.”

Ong added that closing schools “will disrupt many lives.” He cited parents who are both working and have no domestic helpers. He said Singapore is worried most about “parents who are healthcare workers  and providers of essential services.”

“Keeping our healthcare system strong is paramount in the fight against COVID-19. Our frontline warriors will be much more assured if their children are in school, meaningfully engaged, in a safe and healthy environment,” the minister said.

Ong pointed out that their Ministry of Education (MOE) is taking strict precautions to protect students against COVID-19, in consultation with healthcare experts:

  • Students, teachers, staff, and even canteen school operators are required to take a leave of absence or stay home for 14 days if they went overseas during the March holidays.
  • Schools at their gates are implementing a “100% check” on travel histories 
  • Out-of-class activities that involve mingling with other students have been suspended,
  • Every morning, students who feel unwell with a cough, sore throat, or fever will be placed in an isolation room or sent home.
  • Students will have to sit apart, “just like during exams.”

“In that sense, schools remain safe places for children, especially as they seem to be more resilient against the virus,” Ong said.

There have been 455 coronavirus cases in Singapore as of Sunday evening. Of this number, 144 have recovered, 14 remain in critical condition, and two have died. Most others are stable or improving.

Singapore noted that around 80% of recent coronavirus cases are imported – a piece of data that informed their decision to ban tourists from all countries starting 11:59 pm on Monday.

Read Ong’s full explanation below, as posted on his Facebook page on Sunday:

School is reopening tomorrow.

I have received many emails and messages from parents. Some asked why not extend the March holidays, especially given the rising numbers of imported cases and impending border closures. Others, including several students, urged MOE to keep schools open as they would like to go to school.

I have personally replied to many parents and students. Actually, part of the reason for the tougher border measures is to ensure we keep Singapore as safe as possible, so that daily activities, like going to work, eating out, and attending school, can go on.

But let me lay out MOE’s thinking on why school will open tomorrow, but with more precautionary measures. There are 3 key considerations.

First, science. With the virus being around for several months now, there is a body of scientific evidence showing that COVID-19 does not affect the young very much as compared to adults. Parents will be familiar with this concept, as this is the case for other diseases such as chicken pox.

Neither is there evidence to show that the young are vectors or spreaders of the virus. The reverse appears to be the case, where the young get infected by adults at home. This is the advice of Professor Dale Fisher, group director of medicine at NUHS and Chair of the WHO Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network.

Indeed, for the small handful of our students (including those from institutes of higher learning) who were infected, every single one caught it outside of their schools.

In this context, it may not be a bad idea for our children to spend the bulk of their day in school, where lessons and activities are arranged such that they mingle only with their classmates, who are less susceptible to the virus than adults. They will be quite a resilient group. If we close schools, many will not stay home, but may run around in the community and mingle with a lot more people, exposing themselves to more risk.

In that sense, schools remain safe places for children, especially as they seem to be more resilient against the virus.

Second, disruption. Closure of schools will disrupt many lives, especially parents who are both working, with no domestic help, and have limited childcare options. We are particularly concerned about parents who are healthcare workers and providers of essential services.

Keeping our healthcare system strong is paramount in the fight against COVID-19. Our frontline warriors will be much more assured if their children are in school, meaningfully engaged, in a safe and healthy environment.

Third, precautions. Notwithstanding that the young are more resilient to COVID-19, there is no place for complacency. We have consulted our healthcare experts and put in place many significant additional precautionary measures to safeguard the entire system, to maintain the calm situation we enjoyed before the March holidays.

We have implemented a Leave of Absence/Stay-Home Notice policy, with the result that come Monday, every student, teacher, staff, canteen stall operator in school would not have gone overseas since the start of the March school holidays. As a further precaution, there will be 100% checks on their travel history at the gates.

Also, students will only spend their time with two groups – their class and their CCA. All other activities that involve mingling have been suspended. With CCA suspended for two weeks, their only social group is their class.

Another significant precaution is that every morning, every student who is not feeling well, be it with a cough or sore throat, and not just fever, will have to be in an isolation room or sent home.

In class, students will sit apart, just like during exams. Teachers and students will continue to upkeep the highest standards of hygiene. There is constant supervision (for the younger students) and reminders for all students to wash their hands properly and regularly, and avoid touching their faces.

Implemented together, these measures will serve as a robust layer of system defence, complementing the natural defense children may already have, to enable school to continue.

– Rappler.com

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Paterno Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He obtained his MA Journalism degree from Ateneo and later finished MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.