Every few days, I would pop by a school to see how everyone is doing. This is because during the circuit breaker period, we kept schools open for students whose parents are essential workers, and for those from vulnerable backgrounds. Typically, there will be 20 or so students in each school with skeletal staff supervising their home based learning (HBL).
During one of my visits, I met a group of students learning how to play the ukulele. The coach was giving his instructions via Zoom. This activity was sponsored by the Rice Company which is supporting a few schools to conduct such enrichment activities for these children.
I joined them to play the ukulele and realised the chords were totally different from the guitar.
As I was leaving the classroom, the students did their usual synchronised greeting. Just when I was about to step out, a boy nearest to me said cheerfully ‘Bye Mr Ong’! I thought he had a spark in his eyes.
I checked my wallet. I usually have a couple of guitar picks kept in there. I found one with a manga robot printed on it and gave it to him. It was kind of dirty, but I thought maybe he would not mind.
That night, my staff sent me a photo of the boy – mask on, ukulele in hand, holding up the pick I gave him. It was forwarded from the principal of the school. I was informed that due to various reasons, the child has been struggling with his studies. But he was delighted to receive the pick from me, and that he now wanted to learn how to play the ukulele.
It made my day.
As I write this mailer, I thought to myself – is the boy learning how to play the instrument as he said he would? Does he have a ukulele? Is he still coming to school during the circuit breaker period? Do his parents let him?
During the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) and especially during the circuit breaker, the people who are affected the most are the vulnerable members of our society. I see a segment of them in schools. The suspension of schools was a major blow to this group. Many countries have closed their schools since the beginning of the year when the virus first emerged. The school year for these children has hardly started. The long term detriment to these children cannot be underestimated.
This is a key reason the closure of schools was not taken lightly in Singapore. We took all kinds of precautions, withstood many petitions, and kept school opened until the circuit breaker started on 7 April. Thankfully throughout that time, there had been no transmissions in schools.
Even during the circuit breaker, learning did not stop. Educators enhanced the Singapore Student Learning Space platform to deliver HBL. Schools loaned out 20,000 devices to students who were not equipped. Teachers took online attendance every day, and the rate has been over 95 per cent consistently.
Come 2 June, like many countries around the world, we will need to open schools in a calibrated and safe manner, for Covid-19 does not just present a healthcare crisis, it is also an economic and social crisis. All of us – healthcare workers, other frontline workers, donors, social workers, teachers, parents, you and I – must step forward to overcome it.
Ong Ye Kung
People’s Action Party
19 May 2020
Images credit: Ministry of Education