What does the DORSCON orange alert mean for schools in Singapore? A doctor and preschool director explains what MOE & schools are doing to keep kids safe from Covid-19 (including preschoolers who put everything in their mouths!)
On Friday, 7 February, the government raised the Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) alert level to orange (indicating “moderate to high public health impact” from the coronavirus, now officially named Covid-19). After an initial panic and run on toilet paper (followed by comforting reassurance from PM Lee that there are plenty of supplies on hand), people in Singapore began to consider the further implications of DORSCON orange. For instance, so as to reduce intermingling and unnecessary exposure to crowds, the Ministry of Education (MOE) has suspended inter-school and external activities – including the national school games and camps – through the end of the March school holidays.
There’s been less news about preschools in Singapore, however. We wondered, could preschools potentially be closed? Are younger kids at greater risk since they might not fully comprehend what is going on?
We turned to Dr Elaine Kim, the co-founder and CEO of Trehaus School, a Silicon Valley-inspired preschool and childcare located at Funan in the CBD, to find out more about what steps preschools in Singapore are taking to keep kids safe. As a mother of three herself, we know Elaine is as invested as anyone could be in ensuring children’s wellbeing, and she shares some great tips for nervous parents of preschoolers to put our minds at ease (including a catchy nursery song about washing hands and wearing masks!). Read on for some major wisdom!
What impact did upgrading to DORSCON orange have upon schools? Does it affect preschools differently than primary or secondary schools?
Trehaus School was created by parents, for parents and their families. So as parents ourselves we understood well the anxieties and concerns that parents face, and have put every measure we can in place to protect our Trehaus children.
We sent out updates and advisories as soon as we heard about the novel coronavirus (now named Covid-19) , even before community spread was found, and long before the DORSCON Orange level status was announced. Our parents keep their little ones home if they are sick, and we maintain very close communication with families throughout.
Following the DORSCON Orange announcement, the additional precautionary measures advised by MOHH and ECDA were immediately implemented if not already done. The guidelines are similar for both the early childhood sector as well as primary and secondary schools – children who show respiratory symptoms and/or have fevers need to seek medical attention; excursions and large-scale events are suspended; and leave of absence for all staff and children returning from Mainland China and for anyone with a household member on Home Quarantine Order is mandatory. These are alongside the stringent health and temperature checks we have daily. We now take our children and staff temperatures three times a day since DORSCON Orange, take every parent/guardian’s temperature when they drop off and pick up, and require all visitors to fill in a health declaration form.
We’ve also increased our vigilance, stepped up on keeping the preschool clean, especially frequently touched surfaces, toys and commonly shared items with more cleaning intervals. We have hired extra cleaning services to do a deep clean regularly and also increased UV sanitation.
Based on the current situation, there is no need to take your child out of school.
My preschooler puts everything in his mouth, how I can ensure he will be safe at his childcare or preschool?
There’s no such thing as the five-second rule when you are 18 months old – everything is up for grabs. As a mom of 3 and a doctor, I understand the need for children to explore their world with the most sensitive part of their bodies but also worry about their hygiene.
Recognizing this, we make sure at school there is regular hand washing and hand sanitisation. Surfaces and toys also get a good clean frequently every day.
At Trehaus School, we have a 1:5 teacher-child ratio and that is one of ways we make sure we give the best care that can be provided. Our teachers are also trained in the best practices of five top learning pedagogies and know how to guide our little ones’ behavior firmly, gently and respectfully. Instead of turning a child’s natural inclination to pop a toy in their mouth into a power struggle, we redirect their attention instead. For older children, we use this as a learning opportunity. For example, our teachers won’t show disapproval, but instead, say kindly, “No, we don’t put toys in our mouths. Mouths are for eating, drinking and talking. What else can our mouths do? can you show me some sounds you can make with your mouth?”
If the government upgrades to DORSCON Red, what will that mean for schools in Singapore?
A DORSCON Red level means that disease is severe and spreading widely, with significant numbers of deaths. In that situation there will likely be school closures and work from home orders.
I’m hopeful that we will not reach a DORSCON Red level. We would not have reached that during the SARS epidemic had the framework been in place then.
Right now, thankfully, there has not been a fatality in Singapore. The fatality rate is about 1-2% (and probably lower as many mild cases are not diagnosed), closer to seasonal influenza (about 0.2%) than SARS (about 10%) and MERS (about 30%).
That said however, Covid-19 spreads more quickly and quietly than SARS or MERS , resulting in over 60,000 cases and a death toll over 1,300 as of today (almost all within China). So a high state of alert, community responsibility and strict precautions are all warranted.
But I firmly believe there is no reason to panic, particularly in Singapore.
Over 50 cases may sound alarming, but it is also important to remember that Singapore is incredibly efficient at contact tracing and diagnosing. We are probably finding more cases because we are looking harder.
Seven teams of 10 officers from the Ministry of Health alongside Singapore Police Force officers providing investigative expertise, work two shifts from 8:30am till 10pm, seven days a week , to make a detailed tracking of anyone who could have conceivably come in contact with diagnosed cases in the last two weeks, and places them under strict quarantine.
Quarantined patients get a financial allowance and good medical care so there’s a carrot to come forward and flouting quarantine orders could mean a $10,000 fine and jail, so there’s a stick to prevent diagnosed patients from spreading the virus.
Other countries with equally high visitor traffic from China, which do not have any diagnosed cases, quite likely have undiagnosed carriers in the community.
In a sense, Singapore, despite its high number of cases, could arguably still be one of the safer cities to be living in currently.
What effect does outdoor play have upon kids’ immune systems?
At Trehaus School we have always been big proponents of the importance of outdoor play. From a health perspective alone, there is research-based evidence of multiple benefits, including reducing risk of myopia, preventing vitamin D deficiency, decreasing childhood obesity, regulation of circadian rhythm and lowering risk of mental health and behavioral problems such as hyperactivity and stress.
That is why despite being on the edge of the CBD, Trehaus School provides access to the beautiful outdoors more than most other preschools. In fact we are blessed with access to an Urban Garden (where our children grow their own fruits and vegetables), a futsal court and an outdoor playground! Our children get to play outdoors daily, do multi-sports at the futsal court and take afternoon picnics in our garden. And being essentially a street away from Fort Canning Park lets us take our kids for “forest school” days out in the park.
In this current climate with Covid-19, the outdoor access has an additional benefit: most coronaviruses are transmitted via droplets, and warmth and humidity causes droplets to fall to the ground and this decreases transmission. And temperatures above 30 degrees can cause inactivation of coronaviruses. Seeing as viruses don’t like heat and sunlight, being outdoors in Singapore weather can’t be a bad thing for our kids!
What steps are preschools taking to ensure children wash their hands frequently? Any tips for parents to make it more of a fun game?
As a school, our motto is “Raising Changemakers.” To us, the world is changing at a pace faster than ever before and we believe in preparing our kids for an unknown future. So we have used this interesting time of uncertainty as a learning opportunity for our children.
In the midst of this epidemic, we created a new project to teach our children to think positively, adapt to a changing environment, be mindful about how our small actions (for example handwashing) can have tremendous implications to ourselves, our communities and our world, think creatively, and take action to create positive change.
For example, the children were curious when they noticed many people wearing masks these past few weeks. We seized this opportunity to tap into their curiosity and collaboratively created a rap song and music video with our littles ones – it’s a major hit in Trehaus School!
It goes (sung to the tune of “If you’re Happy and you Know it”):
If you’re coughing and you know it, wear a mask!
If you’re sniffling and you know it, wear a mask!
You’d better put it around your ears,
Stop your mucus and your tears,
If you are sick and you know it, wear a mask!
I now freak out every time my child sneezes or coughs. When is it the right time to take her to the doctor (vs. just keeping her home)?
Here’s one piece of good news that parents can hold on to: children aren’t as affected by the coronavirus as adults. Relatively few children have been diagnosed with the coronavirus and those diagnosed tend to have a milder illness. (Most deaths have been in elderly and immunocompromised patients with existing illnesses.) Often, children have a mild infection or even no symptoms at all. It was the same with SARS where no children died, and MERS, where most infected children did not even develop symptoms.
So the first thing I would say is: Don’t panic.
If your child is having a fever, cough or runny nose, keep them home (avoiding anyone elderly or immunocompromised in the household). There’s no need to run straight to the doctors as clinic waiting rooms are rampant with other people’s germs. If symptoms are mild, you can watch for a day or two and see a doctor if symptoms escalate, or there is no improvement after three or four days.
The exception is if you have had recent travel history or any reason to believe you have been exposed to Covid-19, in which case, go to see a doctor promptly. If your child is unusually lethargic, not eating or drinking, or short of breath, see a doctor immediately.
Thank you so much for helping to put our minds at ease, Elaine! For more information, visit the following resources:
Find Trehaus School at 109 North Bridge Road, Funan Level 7, Singapore 179097, www.trehaus.co/school
Lead image courtesy of Ministry of Education