COVID-19: Schools, Teachers, Students & Parents: Lessons In Progress

Hope Endures - You are not alone
Hope Endures

13 March 2020

And so it is. WHO has characterised COVID-19 as a pandemic on 11 March 2020. It has been 43 days since the outbreak was declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on 30 January 2020, and 35 days since DORSON ORANGE was raised on 7 February 2020. In the midst of the constant bombardment thereafter from social media of the precautionary measures; updates on the situation; the panic buying of grocery items like rice, Mama Lemon dishwashing liquid, instant noodles and, last but not least, toilet paper; an altered sense of normalcy is slowly settling in.

School Admin, Teachers, Students & School Janitors

School Admin

School managers are on high alert as they endeavor to keep the students safe. All students are required to declare recent travel histories, and those who have recently travelled to China (prior to 18 February 2020) are required to go on a leave of absence (LOA) for 14 days from the day of arrival in Singapore.

Besides the twice daily temperature-taking, students are constantly reminded to maintain personal hygiene. My primary school students have informed me about the new Soaper 5 which was launched during Total Defence Day to remind primary school students how to keep COVID-19 at bay with frequent handwashing with soap and water. If anything, I thought this internalised heightened level of personal hygiene is a silver lining to the otherwise bleak situation.

Schools have taken precautionary measures to minimise congregation of students in large numbers to circumscribe the intermingling of students. This practice of social distancing translates to suspension of large group gatherings and communal activities like level meetings, school assemblies and mass lectures. Instead, classroom-based assemblies and multiple meetings with smaller groups of students are conducted.

For my elder son who is in Year 5, his orientation activities were scaled down and therefore activities like orienteering games, treasure hunts and camp fires have been replaced with small group ice-breaker games. This resulted in long slack times and the camaraderie among the group members was mainly forged outside of school.

Teachers

Teachers who had to take medical leave, which is normally 5 days given by general practitioners if you exhibit cold or flu-like symptoms, conducted lessons through video conferences. Although it is not as effective as physical interactions with the students and with limited view of the whole classroom during the delivery, these teachers could cover the syllabus without worrying about make up lessons they would otherwise have to schedule when they return from medical leave, not to mention the pile of marking sitting on their desks.

Students

Recess schedule has been staggered for the various levels and some schools have multiple short breaks. In addition, students are encouraged to use the spaces outside of the canteen to consume their food. In my son’s school, the usual gathering of soccer pals from across levels has now been replaced with seven-a-side or desperate five-a-side games. The dynamics and the buzz during their recess breaks have changed dramatically with fewer interactions among different groups.

In post-primary institutions, the school’s timetable had to be rescheduled to break up periods with large lectures into smaller classroom-based lessons instead. The schools’ timetable committee scrambled to re-schedule classes bearing in mind students’ different subject combinations and the number of available classrooms. Due to limited manpower, many students experienced online learning with pre-recorded lectures in their school computer laboratories.

Students & School Janitors

Students are encouraged to wipe down their learning spaces as well as the canteen tables with disinfectant and to wash their hands regularly. I was tickled that a few do remember the Soaper 5 song!

Together with the school’s janitors, our children are doing their part to maintain public cleanliness and hygiene. It is my hope that these practices will continue because it is our social responsibility as users of public spaces to maintain their cleanliness.

Co-Curricular Activities

Co-curricular Activities (CCAs) continue in smaller groups for the uniformed groups and the aesthetics groups, and all activities that are conducted in external venues and all external school activities, for example, Learning Journeys have been suspended. However, sports and the performing arts competitions will proceed albeit without spectators and audience, respectively.

In early February, with the uncertainty of how the COVID-19 situation will pan out, students have been pushing on with their practices within their respective CCAs, in the hope that the situation will improve and that they will have the opportunity to compete, perform and showcase their talents. Many students have confided about their fear of having the Singapore Youth Festival (SYF) competition cancelled eventually. They are bravely bracing themselves for the inevitable disappointment, should the situation deteriorate, and the event is subsequently called off. With a heavy heart, I assured them that all their effort put into their weekly practices will not go to nought, but instead, their perseverance and resilience during this period of time will stand them in good stead. It has always been the process, I told them, and not the product. How they are going to handle the situation and how they cope with their emotions are invaluable life skills.

Similarly, the students participating in sports CCAs are training with a goal in mind – to participate in the inter-school competitions in the months ahead. Yet, in the back of their minds, they, too, are grappling with the uncertainties and the likely possibility of not being able to compete. They trudge on with unspoken frustration. “A sports person trains without ceasing, whether or not there is a competition because you have to keep sharpening your sword,” I reminded them. As soon as the words are uttered, I am also aware that a sports person trains with goal posts along the way to keep them going. With the assurance that it is only a matter of when and not whether, it helps them to reconcile with their disappointment.

Teacher, Parent, Self

On a personal level, I managed to order a non-contact thermometer from Amazon during the last week of January when the shelves that used to sell thermometers at Guardian, Unity and Watsons remain resolutely empty. When I checked back at Amazon four days later, the price had risen by 50 per cent. Panic-buying must have driven up the price. I felt an uncontrollable sense of helplessness and anger at the same time. I took a step back and reflected. I realized that the sense of vulnerability and lack of control of the Covid-19 situation has caused much anxiety in people, and being able to buy some essential items eased the anxiety somewhat, and helps to reclaim some semblance of control for us.

Teacher-Parent

Racism & Xenophobia

Throughout this period, I have had to embrace a change in a whole new perspective through reading and learning about COVID-19. The first week after DORSCON Orange was activated, a student arrived at class declaring that it was those Chinese people from China who ate those bats or snakes and caused the spread of the virus. I sat him down and told him that the mainland Chinese people are not the only ones who eat exotic meats. The Japanese hunt whales; gorilla meat is bushmeat in some parts of Africa; and caribou meat is consumed by some tribes in Canada. His eyes widened, and he was momentarily stunned. “There have been many outbreaks of zoonotic diseases prior to Covid-19” , I continued, “and they occurred in far-flung places and we were not affected.” It is not about who started this, it is about how we unite as one and combat the spread of the disease. When I recounted the incident of a Singaporean student who was beaten up in London because his attackers associated him with COVID-19, they were aghast.

Racism is hate, and hate will fester and manifest in discriminatory behaviour and, in some cases, culminate in violence. They understood. Why would anyone inflict pain, physical or emotional, on another person just because of his skin colour? People are not instinctively colour-blind, but we are bestowed with the intellectual capacity to rationalise our beliefs.

Subsequently, they continued to update me the number of cases each time they came for class and how their teachers and classmates were putting into practice the message from the Soaper 5 and, of course, you’d hear recounts of classmates who defies the proper personal hygiene practices. Well, it is time for you to gently remind your classmates to take care of themselves and others, I told them. We must do our part to keep everyone safe.

Parent

Competition plane built for SYFMC 2020
Shelved SYFMC plane

My elder son’s part-time work in a hotel was cancelled when the coronavirus first emerged in late January. In the meantime, he had designed and built a plane for the upcoming Singapore Youth Flying Club’s annual competition. Unfortunately, he was informed recently that it has been cancelled. On another note, my younger son is involved in his school’s Open House this year. However, it has been modified to an e-Open House come April. I’m curious how an e-Open House will be conducted as this is definitely the first time I’m aware of this format.

Apart from cancelled parents’ briefing sessions at my sons’ schools, all social service organisations have suspended their volunteer programmes. It has been 6 weeks since I last visited the Family Service Centre (FSC) to help the children with their school work, and I have yet to meet my 6-year-old reading buddy as the staff at New Life Stories had just paired me up with her to read to her every Friday. It did not help that her family does not have WIFI at home, and I am, therefore, unable to read to her via WhatsApp video call. I miss the children at the FSC, and I know that they need now, more than ever, extra help not just in their studies, but their emotional well-being. On Fridays, they talk to me about their day at school, the funniest thing that they had witnessed, or their problems. I can imagine the anxiety of their parents having to stand in the aisle staring at the empty shelves that used to hold stacks of toilet paper, noodles, rice and hand wash, and pondering whether they could stretch the dollar in their wallets to buy the more expensive goods available (if any) as substitutes. These thoughts bring me down, and there is nothing I can do. We are all patiently waiting for DORSCON orange to turn to yellow.

Self: Fear. Panic. Irrational Thoughts.

I recalled how the creeping sense of fear wrapped itself around my mind and I heard voices telling me that I should have stocked up when there were still some stocks left, and now you’ve missed out, and you don’t know when the stocks will arrive. So, what do I do now? Do I need more masks eventually when my supply runs out? Yes, I do. But can I do without it for now? Yes, I can. What if I don’t have any in the worst case scenario? I think I’ll be able to get some. Somehow. But something tells me, after having stepped away from the scene, that there’s no need to panic – that there will be enough for everyone who needs it. I was glad I stepped back and away from the maddening crowd to still my mind.

Well-stocked shelves at NTUC
Shelves at NTUC stocked with items that were snapped up previously

I was relieved that the supermarkets were quick to re-stock the empty shelves. It was definitely reassuring because empty shelves send the hollow signal that there is scarcity, and people perceive empty shelves as a chronic lack of supply. This heightens their anxiety, which, in turn, may escalate to more panic-buying and hoarding.

I can’t tell whether it was just perfect timing, or coincidence. A week later, we were down to one last roll of toilet paper and about one kilogram of rice in our ten-kilogram rice bin. The stocks for these two items had trickled in, and surprisingly, the toilet paper was at a discount for packs of threes. I was lugging my usual four packs of 2.5kg of rice, and three rolls of toilet paper. Not surprisingly, I had stares from fellow customers at the payment queue. I wish I could hang a sign around my neck that says “I have 1 kg of rice and I roll of toilet paper left.” It is an entirely alien feeling of triggered defence that was I experiencing. It was a foreign emotion tied to a daily, unthinking, familiar activity.

Behaviour Analysis

Out of curiosity, I had asked my students over the last weekend, to put themselves in the shoes of the panic-buyers, and give three strong reasons why they would hoard toilet paper. They looked at me in disbelief and laughed, thinking I was pulling their legs. But, no. I wasn’t going to let their giggles and laughter change my mind. They settled down and thought hard. Really hard. When I looked through their essays, I understood why they had such a hard time coming up with three valid reasons. I’ve forgiven them for laughing at the adults, but I haven’t forgotten how hard they’d tried to keep a straight face.

Moving Forward

Singaporeans are facing limits on public life as travel plans are disrupted, large scale events are cancelled and places of worship have suspended services. It has been frustrating to have to compromise – to accept a less-than-ideal situation, because of the spread of the disease and its consequential uncertainties. However, I remind my sons, as well as my students, that life is full of surprises and sometimes things do not go as planned. But how we react to the changing situations reflect our adaptability and willingness to solve any problems that present themselves. It is a wonderful learning opportunity amidst the tensed atmosphere, and a unique one which tests our children’s resilience and perseverance in times of uncertainties.

Our perception, and consequently, our reactions and behaviours serve as models to our children. Learning to confront and address our fears and our sense of helplessness with our children, helps them to see that these emotions are natural, but how we respond to them differentiates the outcomes. I want my sons and students to know why I did not buy ten rolls of toilet paper or twenty boxes of surgical masks. I need them to know that factual information must feed the reasoning behind every logical action. I need them to be aware of others in our society who may need surgical masks more than I do. I need them to know that if everyone looks out for one another, we can take care of ourselves and of others as well. It is not a zero sum game.

As I edit this post, I received the breaking news that our neighbour, Malaysia, has announced a national lockdown. I urge our countrymen to exercise good sense and consideration, because our children will tell us we are capable of it.

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