On Wednesday (25 March) noon, 73 new cases of COVID-19 had been identified in Singapore. This is the highest daily increase of confirmed infected cases reported since the virus hit the country in January this year.
Of this, 18 of the confirmed cases were linked to a new cluster at PCF Sparkletots Preschool at Fengshan Blk 126. 14 of the cases are staff at the preschool, and four (Cases 521, 566, 567, and 572) are family members of Case 601.
As such, the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) announced that all PAP Community Foundation (PCF) centres across the island will be closed from today (26 March) to Sunday (29 March) in order to carry out disinfestation process on the premises as well as to “review and reiterate” COVID-19 precautionary measures with the staff.
The Fengshan branch had already been shut from 24 March to 7 April after a nursery 2 teacher from the preschool had been tested positive for the deadly coronavirus on 23 March and a few other staff were later found to be symptomatic.
“As she was last present in the centre on March 18 and was well at the time, ECDA and MOH (Ministry of Health) decided that there was no need to close the centre, but instead allowed the centre to close for a day for thorough cleaning and disinfection,” said an ECDA spokesman.
However, after more staff had reported to be not feeling well, the closure was extended. On Wednesday, 13 more staff at the centre, including non-teaching staff as well as the centre’s principal, were tested positive with the virus.
Initially, the principal was well while at work on 17 March, but she later developed symptoms in the afternoon, ECDA said. She also conducted a meeting with her staff and went for a course with other preschool staff in the evening.
“The principal saw a doctor the next morning on March 18 and was on medical leave until March 20. Most of the other staff who tested positive began developing symptoms from March 20 and over the weekend,” added ECDA.
Additionally, four of the principal’s family members were also tested positive with the virus on 23 and 24 March, despite not staying with her. MOH is currently conducting contact tracing.
In addition to the closure, MOH also said that all children and staff who were present at the centre between 16 and 24 March were placed under quarantine.
“ECDA is closely monitoring the situation, and working with the management, staff, parents and children at PCF Sparkletots Preschool @ Fengshan Blk 126 to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all,” the agency said.
Ever since the first positive case of the novel coronavirus was detected in Singapore in January, ECDA said that it had been working closely with preschool operators to implement precautionary measures like restricting visitors, suspend large group and communal activities as well as excursions and field trips, health checks, and increase temperature screening for all teachers and children.
It added that staff were also urged to get immediate medical attention and don’t come to work if they feel unwell.
“The precautionary measures that have been put in place in preschools are only effective if the preschool community works together and exercises social responsibility. All preschool staff and children who are unwell should seek immediate medical attention and return to school only when fully recovered,” said ECDA.
Parents received apology letter from PCF
Following this incident, PCF has sent out an apology letter to all parents which was viewed by TODAY. In the letter, the agency stated that preliminary investigations revealed that the staff went to work despite not feeling well.
“We are sorry for what has happened. It is regrettable that measures put in place to safeguard the well-being of children and staff were not strictly followed in that centre. We will do a comprehensive review of what happened in this case and take appropriate actions,” said the letter.
It added that it takes the responsibility of caring for its children “very seriously”, and it will continue to suspend all non-essential visits, large group activities, and excursions even after the preschools reopen its doors on 30 March.
“As part of the daily health screening process, all of our centres have been directed to ensure that children and staff will not be allowed to enter the centre if they show any signs or symptoms of being unwell,” said PCF, adding that every child and staff is closely monitored during the day.
If that’s not all, PCF chief executive Victor Bay said in a media statement that the foundation was “deeply sorry to all parents whose children are enrolled with PCF for the inconvenience caused by the closures”.
He went on to add that an internal inquiry community will be formed to look into the matter, “with a view to taking appropriate staff disciplinary action where warranted”.
While all PCF centres are currently closed, Mr Bay said that the foundation will engage professional cleaning agencies to disinfect, sanitise, and deep-clean the centres. It will also “conduct refresher training on health, hygiene and safety practices for our staff”, he noted.
“We will also review our SOPs (standard operating procedures) to identify any gaps and tighten processes to ensure full compliance,” he added.
Ministers say shutting down of schools not necessary
Separately, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said in a Facebook post on Monday (23 March) that his Ministry’s decision to reopen schools after the March holidays was due to scientific evidence, taking extra precautions, and a goal to reduce disruptions.
Laying out the Ministry of Education’s (MOE) decision to reopen schools but with more precautionary measures, Mr Ong said that scientific evidence revealed that the deadly COVID-19 does not affect young individuals as much as it does on adults. In fact, evidence shows that young people are not the spreader of the virus, and they themselves get infected by adults at home, the Minister said.
He also went on to state that only a number of students were infected with the virus, and all of them “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,” he noted.
However, his Ministry’s decision to reopen schools on Monday received massive backlash from the public. The majority of the netizens expressed their frustration and slammed Mr Ong’s explanation.
Besides that, online petition was also set up on Charge.or urging Mr Ong to close all schools in order to avoid children contracting the deadly virus.
Separately, Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong said on 13 March that the government will not rule out school closures, however, they were still unclear about the effectiveness of school closure in preventing the spread of the coronavirus. They are still identifying the effectiveness of such measures before making any decisions, he said.
“We will not rule out (school closure) but we need to clarify… the effectiveness of school closures and how this would potentially break or slow down the transmission chain before putting in place a measure like that,” said Mr Wong.
According to Health Minister Gam Kim Yong, the government may step up measures which include school closures but it is still not the right time yet.