Coronavirus: Ong Ye Kung explains why schools should stay open for now, gives 3 cons to school closure

But it is also because of that, that we start to realise that this is a very difficult decision, with a lot of pros and cons.

Jane Zhang | Nyi Nyi Thet | February 14, 2020, 02:28 PM

Speaking to reporters at a Total Defence Day campaign launch at First Toa Payoh Primary School, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung talked about, among other issues, the closing of schools.

Or rather, the pros and cons of keeping schools open.

In response to a question asking whether two educators being confirmed coronavirus might prompt a rethinking of whether the safety measures implemented in schools are enough, Ong stated that he though the measures have been appropriate.

Ong acknowledged that there were calls for schools to be closed by some parents.

He however explained why closing schools isn't as straightforward an issue as some of these parents might feel.

Ong agreed that there are pros to closing schools at this juncture:

But he went on to say that there were also significant cons:

1. Schools are generally clean, because of all the cleaners and MOH guidelines regulating it.

2. Children cooped up at home for too long might want to go out, which is good because it is airy however the mingling might also increase the chance of contracting the virus as opposed to a controlled environment like a school.

3. Big disruption to parents and students, particularly because the normalcy is disrupted, with many having to scramble alternate childcare arrangements. Over a longer period of time, "the disruption might lead to sadness, despair, and even a bit of fear".

He also stated that the pros and cons are not straightforward.

"The pros and cons I outlined is not straightforward. As I mentioned, if there is widespread virus transmission, whether you close, whether you open, I think you're going to get infections.

I think we can make sure we do, no regrets: raise the individual hygiene standards, raise the group hygiene standards of school, make sure this is one of the safest places for students. Then we have options."

Ong also touched on how and why schools were closed during SARS

He reiterated that the conditions of the current outbreak have to be carefully considered, but as of now he believes schools should be kept going, but with extra measures in place.

Ong also talked about the social defence aspects Singaporeans must take note of.

“When you keep yourself healthy, you keep people around you healthy. When you don’t snatch toilet paper, don’t snatch canned food from the supermarket, other people who need it have it! These are all social defence”, said Ong.

Here is his answer in full:

"So far the measures I think is appropriate. I think it's not surprising that when the virus start to spread, you start to have educators...they get infected.

Of course, the call is always "should we suspend school?" The parents who suggest that; I think they are just trying to protect their children. And I think we share that - the safety, the well-being of our children is top of our minds.

But it is also because of that, that we start to realise that this is a very difficult decision, with a lot of pros and cons.

What are the pros? For many parents, it's that "I keep my child at home, I jaga (take care) the child, I look after the child and I feel a sense of safety.

But there are significant cons. One is that infections do happen at home, and not all homes are airy with sunlight, some homes are not well ventilated. Parents, family members go out to work, they do bring back infections. Infections do happen at home, just like dengue.

Dengue happens actually at home. Whereas in school, with routines like this: regular cleaning, disinfection by our team of cleaners, we can actually keep the school environment very clean.

Second con is the opposite of the first. Ask children to stay at home, the older ones don't really stay at home. So they will go out. To go out is good, you simulate a school environment where its airy, you're out in the open, you exercise, you're under the sun, which raise their resilience and immunity. But at the same time, they are also mingling in public spaces. So I'm also not sure whether that reduces or increases infection.

Whereas in school, they are kept within this environment, with the protocol, with teachers repeatedly reminding them and bringing them to wash their hands. Repeatedly reminding them not to touch their faces. Repeatedly making sure that everyone comes in with a fever or not feeling well, they turn them back to rest at home.

So today, in school, it's a much more regimented and cleaner environment. That's why we say we are trying our best to call on all our 33,000 educators to make schools one of the safest places.

The third, often underestimated, con, is that it is a big disruption for many parents and many students lives. At the beginning, we may feel safe, but as school continues to be closed after a while, normalcy is disrupted.

Parents will be scrambling, "how to look after my child in the day when I'm at work" and the alternate childcare arrangement may not be safer than school, for many parents, I think that will be the case.

And then also over a longer period of time, with your life disrupted, it can give rise to sadness, despair, even a bit of fear.

So those are not to be underestimated. So it's a big, big decision. Bear in mind, during SARS, we did close schools for a while. SARS lasted, and then we reopened again. SARS continued to last for another 3 months before it tapered down.

So we did keep schools open most of the time during SARS except for a period. And the purpose during that period was 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 are put in place.

That was the purpose of suspending schools during the SARS period. But all those system are today in place, so we don't have those need to close the schools.

So, big decision. I would say, whether at some point where there is wide community spread and we have to close schools, or whether we open schools, I think there will be infections, if we are honest about it, either way there will be. So we have to consider, monitor, the situation closely. As of now, I think we should keep schools going, but we take extra precaution, as already we have been done."

When asked about what would prompt closure, Ong suggested taking "it one step at a time" but reiterated that measures are in place to ensure safety of the children.

Image from Andrew Wong