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Pursuing In-Person Learning in the Time of Coronavirus

By Tom Boasberg
Pursuing In-Person Learning in the Time of Coronavirus

UPDATE: Since this article appeared in TIE's April print edition, the SAS campus has closed for the next month, per Singapore government guidelines. "Our SAS precautionary measures worked for us, as we did not have any cases or clusters develop related to our campus (although several parents were diagnosed positive for covid-19 after travelling). Unfortunately, with cases having increased in Singapore over the last month, the government on Friday made the decision to implement a "circuit breaker" stay-home policy that includes all schools. We are now relying on our home-based learning systems, which we practiced previously, and so far all is progressing smoothly."
It was just before Chinese New Year and we could feel the excitement building, both at Singapore American School (SAS) and across our island home. Elementary classes visited Chinatown, staff performed a Lunar New Year concert, and families planned for the upcoming four-day weekend. Some would relax on-island, some would explore the region, and some would hold traditional family reunions in Singapore or China.
Unfortunately, another traveler was on the move. The novel coronavirus later named COVID-19 had quietly arrived in Singapore, and on the Friday starting our long weekend, the government announced that three people in Singapore had been diagnosed with it. We were quickly confronted with a highly uncertain, fast-moving situation that has affected many aspects of our school and personal lives. Over the next few weeks, we sought to learn about the virus, implement measures to prevent its spread, meet government requirements, and humanely manage the implications for students, staff, and families.
We have seen how frequent, open, and values-based school communication can encourage individuals to take steps for their own safety and for the greater good. We have also seen how fear and panic can compound the threat of the virus itself.
Now, well into the process, we are grateful for how our school family has pulled together in the face of uncertainty and unease. As the virus continues its march around the globe, our experiences may help other schools as they grapple with how to respond in the best way for their situations and communities.
Be prepared
Having gone through the SARS epidemic in 2003, SAS had already experienced a health crisis that caused widespread anxiety and disruption to daily life. We had kept our emergency-response plans updated through annual reviews, and we had developed plans for remote learning in case of an unexpected campus shutdown.
In recent weeks, we have shared those distance-learning plans with our community, and students and teachers practiced how it would work. This has reassured the community that we are all prepared for a possible campus closure.
Luckily for us, the Singapore government had also built on the SARS experience to create a response framework that was quickly mobilized, including clear guidelines for schools. We communicated those guidelines to our community and followed them carefully. Where we felt it necessary, we took precautions beyond those required by the government and took pains to explain them to our community.
First steps
On the afternoon of the government’s initial announcement, we emailed our community that we would communicate detailed safety precautions on the last day of the holiday weekend. We wanted to fill the news vacuum immediately to prevent speculation and reassure parents that we would take precautionary actions before school resumed.
The day before our Tuesday start, we sent out a detailed communication to our community. We sought to both establish clear policies and demonstrate concrete actions. For example, we announced that we would hire extra nurses and cleaning staff to bolster critical front-line resources. We asked parents to be our partners by taking their children’s temperature every morning and reporting on travel. Our leadership team activated the school safety committee and established clear information-sharing and decision-making procedures.
Communicate, communicate, communicate
Throughout the evolution of our protocols, we communicated with parents and staff frequently to stay ahead of concerns and questions and nip rumors in the bud.
In the month after Chinese New Year break, we emailed 17 separate letters to our community, along with Chinese, Japanese, and Korean translations of the most important ones. We also created a single micro-site for easy access to all the relevant information, including past communications.
Open communication was especially important when we were informed that visiting relatives of a staff member had tested positive for the virus. We shared promptly and fully with the community what was known, what was being done, and what was (and was not) likely to happen next. We continued with frequent, often daily updates on the situation that emphasized our heartfelt support for our quarantined staff member and his family.
Of course, there was fear in our community, but we were determined to prevent any expression of anger or bias towards that educator or other faculty. Thankfully, our staff member completed his mandatory quarantine without becoming ill, and his relatives fully recovered. Students sent him their best wishes during his absence, and we publicly welcomed him back to campus on his return.
Allow for an evolving situation
As the situation in Singapore developed, with more cases confirmed and the number of at-risk individuals growing, the government’s instructions became increasingly specific and strict.
At school, we implemented online, twice-daily temperature recording for staff and instructed parents to fill out a daily temperature slip for each child. Parents and staff had to document recent travel to China or elsewhere.
We cancelled scheduled high school trips to China, and then a week later we cancelled our entire Interim Semester, a weeklong, off-campus learning program that has been a high point for our high school students since 1973. We next moved to limit large-group activities, cancel inter-school events, and institute staggered recesses and lunchtimes to reduce crowding.
Visitors, including taxis, were no longer allowed on campus, and students took extra practice on our remote learning platforms. Throughout it all, we sought to teach our children lifelong skills, like proper hand washing, and incorporated relevant lessons into courses ranging from biology to social studies. We wanted to demystify the virus and give our community the sense that this was something we could confront together.
Involve the community when possible
Before making major, potentially unpopular decisions—such as cancelling Interim Semester, sports tournaments, or our annual PTA International Fest—we consulted with community members and addressed their concerns. We tried to respond to complaints and objections with respect, empathy, and, above all, facts, on the theory that understanding why we had to make certain decisions would help people accept them.
We spent hours detailing the reasons behind our decisions, rather than simply stating that they were in the best interests of students. We believe this approach worked, because our students, staff, and parents consistently rose to the occasion and put community safety before their own preferences. Together, we could recognize that this exceptional situation required an exceptional response.
Keep the focus on learning and community
We feel we have come a long way since the start of our COVID-19 experience, and we know there will be more developments in the weeks ahead. We hope to be prepared but are painfully aware of how quickly this situation has developed and the unforeseen complications we will undoubtedly face.
In the meantime, we have tried to keep the focus on learning and on community. We hope that in the future, our students will look back on this as a unique episode during which, despite the challenges, school continued to be the place where they felt safe, learned new things, and deepened their friendships with fellow students.
Tom Boasberg became Superintendent of Singapore American School in July 2019.

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