Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung said keeping schools open amid the COVID-19 pandemic was “one of the toughest decisions” he ever made during his time as the Education Minister, which he has held since 2015 to July last year.
Mr Ong was appointed as Minister of Transport in July last year. He will be taking over the Health Ministry from 15 May, following the latest cabinet reshuffle last week.
In a radio interview with ONE FM 91.3 on Wednesday (28 Apr), the Minister revealed that he made “one of the toughest decisions in my life” by keeping schools open when the country was fighting against the coronavirus.
Mr Ong described the situation in the early days of the pandemic as “panic stations”, given the uncertainties of how the COVID-19 outbreak would end up.
“In most countries, the Education Minister said better just close school because if there’s an outbreak in school, his job is on the line, they probably have to resign.
“But I just felt that if we closed schools, we’re going to have a whole generation of kids missing out. I don’t mean those who are graduating, but those in primary school, in secondary school, maybe they come from fairly vulnerable families.
“So you’re going to keep schools open to give them that environment to learn, if not you may have a lost generation,” he said, as quoted by The Straits Times.
Ong Ye Kung pointed out three reasons why schools should reopen in March last year
Back in March last year, the MOE announced the reopening of schools and kindergartens as scheduled, but with stricter measures imposed. Singapore had reported a total of 313 COVID-19 cases at the time.
In a Facebook post on 19 March 2020, Mr Ong, who was the Education Minister at the time, had openly admitted that many parents, students, and coaches would be disappointed and be inconvenienced as a result of the decision to impose a 14 days Leave of Absence (LOA) for staff and students who have returned from overseas on or after 14 March 2020.
“I know many students, parents and coaches will be disappointed. And many students and parents will be inconvenienced. I hate to have to do this, but it is critical that we protect the system, and keep everyone who has overseas exposure to the virus away from the school population,” he wrote.
After Singapore announced that it will ban all short-term visitors from entering or transiting through the country on 23 March last year, Mr Ong further explained the reasons – scientific evidence, taking extra precautions, and a goal to reduce disruptions – as to why students were allowed to start classes following the March holidays.
“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,” he wrote on Facebook.
Laying out the MOE’s decision to reopen schools but with more precautionary measures, Mr Ong said that scientific evidence revealed that the 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.
“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,” he said.
He added, “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 Prof Dale Fisher, Group Director of Medicine at NUHS and Chair of the WHO Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network.”
Mr Ong 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.”
“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,” he noted.
Mr Ong also highlighted that closing schools will results in disruption of peoples’ lives, especially working parents with no help, and have limited childcare options.
He added that different precautionary measures were also in place to “safeguard the entire system.”
It was subsequently announced by the government that Singapore schools will shift to full home-based learning from 8 April due to the island-wide circuit breaker measures.
In announcing the measures, Mr Ong said that while he had received many requests from parents to close schools earlier, it is now time to do so and “for the right reasons”.
Prior to the announcement, petitions has been created to call for the government to shut down local schools to reduce the risk of coronavirus infections among the community.
Subsequently in May last year, it is then announced that students will return to school from 2 June over two phases as part of the easing of the coronavirus circuit breaker measures that are expected to end on 1 June.