SINGAPORE: Parents were slightly spooked last week.
After the Singapore Government announced a fresh round of border restrictions, Minister for National Development and co-chair of the multi-ministry taskforce Lawrence Wong had said on Wednesday (Mar 11) he would not rule out the possibility of closing schools to stem the spread of COVID-19 here.
However, Mr Wong caveated that authorities would need to be sure that such a drastic measure would be effective in slowing the chain of transmission first.
Earlier that same day, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also listed school closures as one potential measure Singapore can call upon in the event of a spike. Referring to a suite of additional measures as “extra brakes”, he said that they may help slow down community transmission of the virus.
As cases of new infections in Singapore rose sharply these past few days, some quarters grew increasingly concerned over whether this move would be made.
And so many parents breathed a sigh of relief when the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Family and Social Development clarified on Thursday (Mar 19) that schools and kindergartens will reopen after the March holidays as scheduled.
But a 14-day Leave of Absence will be issued to students and school staff who travelled overseas since the start of the school holidays, as an additional precautionary measure given the surge in imported cases.
Still, while we all hope we will not come to this point, are Singaporean parents prepared if such a day comes?
MAJOR ADJUSTMENTS IN LIFESTYLE
The COVID-19 outbreak has reshaped many aspects of our lives over the past two months and pushed Singaporeans to alter our lifestyles quite dramatically.
More people are working from home, fewer are travelling, and everyone is upkeeping top-notch standards of personal hygiene as well as ensuring that their children practise these new habits.
“Wash your hands.” “Cough into your elbows.” All are common refrains you might overhear at a restaurant or hawker centre.
Inculcating new hygiene habits in our young has not been an easy task. Kids, being kids, despite constant reminders not to touch their faces or cough into the air, still do the exact things we tell them not to. (Many adults too are guilty.)
Many families are also opting to keep their children at home, or having smaller-scale play dates within the home or outdoors instead of heading to the malls or indoor playgrounds.
Some are even scheduling more tuition hours to keep their children occupied at home.
Ordering groceries and meals online has quickly become the norm, even for folks who have not done so in the past.
All these in the name of social distancing, or reducing one's movements and social activities, so as to lower the risk of catching the virus or transmitting it unknowingly.
CERTAIN GROUPS WILL BE MORE AFFECTED
But coping with a week-long school holiday – with kids kept largely at home – is quite different from dealing with an extended period of school closure.
The last time Singapore shuttered her schools was during the SARS period in March 2003.
When you consider dual-income families, single-parent families, and families with members working shifts or in healthcare, the decision whether or not to close schools becomes especially tricky.
Even for households with a parent working from home, balancing the demands of work while dealing with rowdy toddlers and sibling conflicts can be hair-raising to say the least. I’ve already heard some friends quip that working from home just isn't working out for them.
In spite of working from home for the past six years, I still find it tough to juggle work and kids during school holidays.
The fact remains that some will be harder hit by school closures, such as when the main caregiver needs to be at work physically in order to pay the month’s bills, and have little remote working options.
When is it bad enough to warrant such a drastic and socially disruptive measure?
HOW MUCH TIME CAN SCHOOL CLOSURES BUY, IF AT ALL?
The gravest concern among governments worldwide is that if the number of cases get too big too soon, the healthcare system might be overwhelmed.
By progressively applying a range of interventions, such as what the Singapore Government has done with contact tracing, quarantine measures and border restrictions, we can keep the number of cases at a more manageable level, thereby flattening the curve and reducing the peak.
If the situation worsens, however, more drastic measures such as closure of schools, commercial activities and public spaces may come into play.
In particular, if children are playing a role in disease transmission, as research published in the journal Paediatrics suggests, closing schools could buy healthcare systems critical time in the context of a wide-ranging community spread.
One study in Nature in 2006 found that closing schools at the peak of an influenza pandemic could reduce the rate of spread by up to 40 per cent.
Another study on influenza suggests that school closure can reduce the spread between children but has only a moderate effect on average transmission rates in the wider population.
However, such research assumes a higher attack rate in children, which experts have said does not seem to be the case with COVID-19.
And would a bigger portion of our youths end up outside where the risks of transmission could be greater than in the relatively safe and controlled confines of a school?
Author of Influenza: The 100-Year Hunt to Cure the Deadliest Disease in History Dr Jeremy Brown highlights a second conundrum in a commentary in The Atlantic:
Public closings cannot last forever. They must, sooner or later, be lifted … While mortality rates declined during closures, once they were relaxed, the influenza virus found fertile new territory.
SUPPORT NEEDED FOR VULNERABLE FAMILIES
When cases of COVID-19 rose in Japan in early March, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced nationwide school closures.
This unexpected move was met with huge scepticism and outrage as it created a logistical nightmare for some 13 million children across Japan – and their teachers and parents.
READ: Commentary: Why Japan’s move to close schools during COVID-19 outbreak upset many – and not just parents
This case illustrates how parents, educators and authorities would do well to plan ahead for a school closure, whether it is allowing schools and teachers some runway to create e-learning resources and assignments, or giving parents some heads up so that alternate care arrangements can be made.
If both parents are working, can one work from home or apply urgent childcare leave? Can companies extend more flexibility?
Alternative, can grandparents or a kind neighbour be enlisted to help?
How can we plan our children’s schedules to also avoid large social gatherings?
If there ever was a time when the community needs to rally together and show greater solidarity, it is now.
For those struggling to make ends meet and must show up at work in order not to lose their jobs, could financial assistance be provided? Or could a classroom at every school be kept open for parents without alternative child-minders? This latter point could help keep kids away from the streets.
It may take some creative engineering, but these may smoothen the rough edges of this control measure and reduce the costs of activating it – particularly for lower-income families.
As for the rest of us, school closures, if activated, up the ante in terms of coronavirus-related inconveniences but it helps to remember the purpose of it all – to see our children, our nation and our world free from the clutches of COVID-19 sooner rather than later.
June Yong is a mother of three, an educational therapist and owner of Mama Wear Papa Shirt, a blog that discusses parenting and education in Singapore.