Back to class: How different pre-schools address parents’ worries about COVID-19

SINGAPORE (CNA) – In the lead-up to pre-schools re-opening today in Singapore, NTUC First Campus’ My First Skool reached out to parents with a 32-page document packed with tips and activities to prepare children for their return to class.

‘The Safe Return Transition Resource Kit’ covers topics like wearing, removing and disposing of masks safely, and how to understand germs. Teachers and principals from the anchor operator’s various centres also produced self-help videos to guide parents and children on habits such as hand-washing.

All this, according to My First Skool’s General Manager Thian Ai Ling, was developed because they anticipated children would take some time to re-adjust to a school environment after weeks of being at home.

Like My First Skool, many preschools – from anchor operators to private players – have been reaching out to parents and children to help ease the transition, as those in Kindergarten 1 and Kindergarten 2 return to school today followed by younger ones later on.

But while the engagement helped alleviate concerns over sending their children back to school for many parents CNA Insider spoke to, a few remain worried and have decided to keep their children at home for now.

ABOVE & BELOW: At Pat’s Schoolhouse, classrooms will be split into two sections, with one group per section; and the seating arrangement in a classroom at Star Learners. PHOTOS: CNA

Staff at Pat’s Schoolhouse @ Claymore marking off seating spaces at the outdoor meal area

Take Haikal Guntor, who received a letter on Friday from his son’s Ministry of Education (MoE) Kindergarten briefly outlining the measures it is taking. This did not change his earlier decision to have his two children – his son who is in K2, and a daughter who attends nursery at a PCF Sparkletots pre-school – stay home.

While his son had an online group call with his classmates and teachers sometime during the circuit breaker, the father described it as “more of a catch-up session” with nothing mentioned about measures taken in the school to keep children safe and healthy.

“Even with the masks, we’re not sure our kids will be safe,” he said, pointing to the “20-plus children” his son has in his class. Besides, he added, his wife used to be a pre-school teacher and can teach them at home.

According to the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA), pre-schools will be required to adhere to measures such as mandating the wearing of masks or face shields by all staff and children above the age of two; and keeping staff and children within their own bays, floors or classrooms as far as possible.

Staff of all pre-schools and early intervention centres have also completed a one-time swab test.

MoE’s Director of Schools Liew Wei Li said the MoE Kindergartens have been engaging parents via letters. In addition, prior to re-opening today, they “also shared infographics, photos or videos with parents” so as to “reassure and give parents a better sense of how these safe management measures will look like in each centre”.

Another parent, Siti Saliha, whose four-year-old daughter attends a PAP Community Foundation (PCF) Sparkletots centre, also does not plan to send her daughter back to school on June 8 when children in Nursery 1 and 2 are slated to return.

The centre held an online parent-teacher conference earlier this month, she said, but she was not satisfied with the answers to her questions – such as how the centre would keep the children from touching each other, and how they would ensure her daughter’s mask would be worn properly.

“They are just nursery kids,” she said. “The teacher kept saying they will guide them and keep reminding them (about the measures) … but I still don’t have confidence.”

On Saturday, she received a letter covering topics such as the items each child should have when they return, and the school’s safe management measures, but she has not changed her mind.

According to Marini Khamis, senior director of PCF’s pre-school management division, the remote parent-teacher conferences were meant to “serve as a platform for teachers to address parents’ concerns”, while the letter was another way to “reassure and alleviate parents’ concerns”.

PCF Sparkletots is the largest pre-school operator in Singapore.

GETTING KIDS IN THE HABIT EARLY

But while mother Nur Afiqah also has concerns, she will be sending her four-year-old to his My First Skool centre today. She cited the trust and good relationships she developed with its staff as one factor.

“I’ve been sending him to the same centre since he was an infant, and I know the principal and teachers well,” she said. “I can ask them anything… there’s no communication barrier.”

Andre Lim, a father of three whose two sons attend Catholic Kindergarten, said he has “no qualms” about his children returning to class.

“I think the risk I face going to the supermarket is higher than (the risk of) sending them to school,” he said.

Some pre-schools are making sure by reaching out to the children even before their return to class, and getting them accustomed to important new habits such as washing their hands frequently and wearing a mask for extended periods.

“Habits take time to acquire and be formalised,” explained My First Skool’s Thian, noting that the 32-page toolkit was designed to help parents get the ball rolling with their children.

“Have many conversations with your children… What makes good, healthy habits, and what should you not be doing, like rubbing your nose and not using a tissue. Parents can help us go through a few of these things.”

Teachers at Pat’s Schoolhouse @ Claymore have been masking up while they conduct home-based learning, “so the children can recognise them… like, ‘this is going to be how I look when you come back to school’,” said the centre’s senior principal Ada Teo.

The children were asked to put on masks during the video calls, to get used to doing so for lessons.

Teachers have been reminding children to continue to practise contactless greetings such as air hugs, fist or elbow bumps with their friends when they return, which they started doing before the circuit breaker kicked in.

“If we prepare them socially and emotionally, it’s a lot easier for them to adjust when they come back,” said Teo.

GETTING KIDS TO WEAR MASKS IN CLASS

One big reason why Siti Saliha decided against sending her daughter back to nursery school is the girl’s inability to wear a mask for long.

“My daughter only wears a mask for short distances, such as from the house to the car,” she said. “And when I bring her out, the mask will slide down her nose when she talks, and she keeps touching and pulling it up.

“The kids might not know how to re-adjust it the right way, and what if her hands are dirty?” she added.

The use of masks is one of parents’ biggest concerns, and pre-schools acknowledged the challenges. For instance, in circulars from three pre-schools that CNA Insider saw, parents were instructed to pack extra masks for their children in case their child drops or soils theirs.

At My First Skool, customised mask holders were created to give children a place to leave their mask when they remove them for mealtimes or naps.

Pre-schools noted that being in a social setting can encourage children to comply with wearing masks. “During the circuit breaker where we provided limited services, we saw that children observe common practices,” said PCF’s Marini.

“They tend to be more open to following practices such as wearing a mask when they see their teachers and friends doing the same.”

Then there are other kinds of encouragement. Principal Pua Yoke Ting of Star Learners at Bishan Central said they would let younger children “choose their favourite sticker and paste it on the mask, so they feel happy and are more inclined to (put it on)”.

But what if a child simply refuses to keep a mask on? Pat’s Schoolhouse’s Teo said they would not force the child, but offer him or her the alternative of a face shield instead.

“We’ll let the child put it on, and continue to explain why we want the child to do that,” she said. “But if the child needs more time, it’s fine.”

“We just have to be very empathetic towards them,” she added. “I will tell them, ‘I know it’s very hot, I am also feeling very hot, but we try again, and we persevere, okay?’”

GETTING KIDS TO KEEP A SAFE DISTANCE

Maintaining a safe distance between children is another worry with parents.

One, who only wanted to be known as Tian, pointed to the number of children in her child’s K2 class at an MoE Kindergarten. There are about 25 children in a space she described as about half the size of a primary school classroom.

“When I was there, I saw different learning corners, a kitchen area, tables and chairs, which makes the classroom very packed. So how are they going to keep a safe distance between the children?” she said, adding that children across different classes would also be using the same entrance, exit and common corridor.

She pointed out that while K1 and K2 children will have their arrival and dismissal times staggered, they would arrive around the same time that the primary school students – also returning to school on today – are dismissed.

MoE’s Liew said schools will work with their MoE Kindergarten to minimise intermingling between primary school and kindergarten children by, for example, adjusting the timings for both.

To decongest common areas during arrival and dismissal, schools will make use of multiple access points or gates, and regulate movement of students at gates and drop-off or pick-up points.

As for classroom size, Liew said the MoE Kindergarten classrooms are “larger than the average kindergarten classroom” and are well ventilated. Children were segregated into groups of five or six before the circuit breaker period, she noted, and this will now be further reduced to four.

Programmes and activities that involve close physical contact among children and staff will also be avoided – for example, there will be no sand and water play, she added.

Other pre-schools have implemented similar measures. At My First Skool, for example, children and teachers at centres with “extended outdoor spaces” on their premises can use these for outdoor walks and to get sunshine and fresh air. The operator is also working with SportSG to introduce customised physical activities that can be done indoors with children.

“These include activities where children learn about underarm throws with newspaper balls, and simple obstacle courses for children,” said Thian.

Outdoor play will be moved indoors at Star Learners Bishan Central. “Thankfully, we have an indoor playground,” said Pua. The playground will be sanitised after every use, and only up to 10 children can be there at any one time.

The centre also split classes up into smaller groups of up to 10. “The same 10 children will be having lessons together, playing together and having meals together,” she said. “They will never mingle with children from the other groups.”

At Pat’s Schoolhouse @ Claymore, classrooms will be split into two sections using shelves and dividers, with one group per section. Children will also wear coloured tags to identify which group they belong to.

Groups will have their own toys and books, which will be cleaned daily during the children’s nap time. High-touch areas, such as low shelves and door knobs, will be disinfected every time the children are out having their meals or at the playground, said Teo. “In the first half of the morning, we should be able to do it about three times, compared to ECDA’s advisory of twice a day,” she added.

GETTING TEACHERS TO PACE THEMSELVES

On the manpower front, pre-schools worked to ensure their staff are not cross-deployed across different groups. For example, at My First Skool, there are those who teach more than one level, such as Malay Language teachers.

“The arrangement for June is that the teacher will stay put in one level, and she will continue to deliver (content) for the other level online,” said Thian.

“So the teacher will be on a screen delivering content to the other level, with a teacher in the classroom to monitor the children and help them give their responses to the teacher on the screen.

“We have advised teachers to pace out a lot of things,” she added. “They are all going to be masked, and breathing can be a little unusual for them.

“So we told them that all activities can be slower for the first two weeks … they can afford to go slow, step back a little bit.”

Indeed, with the preparation work necessary and additional duties when school re-opens, teachers might see an increased workload.

For example, a teacher at Star Learners Bishan Central Chee Shu Yan pointed out that she had to plan the curriculum to cater for smaller group teaching.

With the suspension of outdoor activities, teachers had to think up new ways to make the experience fun and engaging for their children, she added.

A senior teacher at Pat’s Schoolhouse @ Claymore Ellis Lee noted that there will be additional duties such as sanitising and sunning toys daily, as well as the playground, bicycles and tricycles after each use.

Nonetheless, she takes it in a positive light.

“I feel that it’s really not about focussing on these additional duties, but rather about keeping a positive mindset that we are also contributing and doing our part for the community,” she said.

SOME PARENTS CAN’T WAIT

For all the lingering concerns, there are also parents who are looking forward to their children returning to school.

Star Learners’ Pua said she expects 100 per cent attendance today, while Pat’s Schoolhouse’s Teo said all but one of her 50 K1 and K2 children will be returning. “When our teachers check in with them online, the children are all really looking forward to coming back,” Teo added.

Parents feel home-based learning just cannot measure up to the actual pre-school experience.

Allan Fuller, whose son is in K1, said, “Physical attendance in school is critical to our son’s overall development. There is simply no substitute for the classroom dynamic.”

Father of three Andre Lim said, “It’s great to have them home these two months, but it’s gotten to the point where we’re saying, ‘Please go back to school now’.”