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The Merlion statue in Singapore’s Merlion Park pictured on Monday. Photo: EPA

Coronavirus: Singapore defends move not to close schools earlier as scientists agree impact is small

  • From Wednesday, the city state, which had been one of a handful of countries not to close its schools, will do so as it moves to full home-based learning
  • It comes as a new study from researchers at University College London suggests schools closures will do little to stop the spread of Covid-19
Singapore has defended its decision not to close its schools earlier as the country gets ready to implement “circuit breaker” measures this week to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

It was the “correct” decision to leave them open as young people don’t seem to be as affected by the virus as adults, while there is no evidence they are vectors of transmission, the city state’s education minister, Ong Ye Kung, said in an interview with Bloomberg TV.

Singapore to close schools, workplaces as ‘circuit breaker’ to stop virus

From Wednesday, Singapore will close its schools as the city state moves to full home-based learning. It was one of a handful of countries that had resisted doing so, citing early research that children are not as affected as adults, even when more than 160 countries had already shut their schools.

On Monday, researchers at University College London said evidence from flu epidemics and outbreaks caused by other coronaviruses suggests the impact of school closures on the spread of the disease will be small.

Singapore’s Education Minister Ong Ye Kung speaks during a press conference on April 3. Photo: EPA

“We know from previous studies that school closures are likely to have the greatest effect if the virus has low transmissibility and attack rates are higher in children. This is the opposite of Covid-19,” said Russell Viner, an expert at UCL’s Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health who co-led the research.

“Policymakers need to be aware of the equivocal evidence when considering school closures for Covid-19 given the profound and long lasting effect they will have on children – particularly the most disadvantaged.”

Millions of children around the world have been affected by school closures as governments introduced social distancing and lockdown measures to try to slow the coronavirus pandemic.

Viner’s research, published late on Monday in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health journal, said that as of March 18, some 107 countries had implemented school closures.

Singapore couple arrested for leaking notice of school closures

To analyse the potential impact, Viner’s team reviewed 16 previous studies, including nine which looked at school closures during the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome.

Data from the Sars outbreak in China, Hong Kong and Singapore suggested school closures “did not contribute to control of the epidemic”, they said in a summary of the review.

Experts not directly involved in the research said its findings were important and confirmed what many suspected: that the public health benefits of school closures were not proportionate to the social and economic costs for affected children and families.

“This work suggests that … schools could, and should, begin to reopen as soon as practicable after the initial wave of cases has passed through,” said Robert Dingwall, a professor of sociology at Britain’s Nottingham Trent University.
People wearing face masks walk in the Orchard Road shopping district of Singapore on Sunday. Photo: AFP

Viner said the findings suggest countries should now “ask hard questions about when and how to open schools”.

He said other measures, such as staggering school start and break times, closing school playgrounds and minimising the movement of children between classes could be considered to reduce the risk of Covid-19 spreading.

Singapore’s decision to close its schools came as confirmed cases of local transmissions and unlinked infections in the country have risen in recent weeks. As of Monday, Singapore had reported a total of 1,375 cases since the outbreak began. On Sunday, the city state announced 120 new cases, by far its highest single-day tally.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Research backs ‘correct’ decision by Singaporenot to close schools earlier