Commentary: PSLE and COVID-19 - the perfect storm of anxiety?
Our children will be taking a major national exam amid a COVID-19 surge and changes to the scoring system, but here’s why June Yong is learning not to worry.
SINGAPORE: Children who are confirmed COVID-19 cases or close contacts served a quarantine order will not be allowed to sit for the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE).
It’s about two weeks to my daughter’s first PSLE paper. Accounting for the quarantine period, I’ll have to decide soon whether it is worth keeping her home to minimise the risk that she might miss out this milestone exam.
On its part, the Ministry of Education has announced a short study break for Primary 6 students and home-based learning for the other primary levels, in the lead up to the start of the written papers.
Last year, I played it safe and kept the children home a few more days after the mid-year school holidays. Singapore was just coming out of the extended Circuit Breaker and reporting 400 to 600 cases daily, with the vast majority among dormitory residents.
In the lead up to PSLE 2020, the daily case counts were in the double digits.
Fast forward a year, this has surged considerably to 800 to 900 cases daily. And the government anticipates that this may more than double in a month’s time.
Most cases are in the community and includes young schoolgoing children. Earlier clusters linked to tuition centres had also resulted in students in schools across Singapore being infected or quarantined.
So it’s no wonder some PSLE parents have been talking about pre-emptively bubble-wrapping their child at home earlier.
It does sound tempting. After all, we wouldn’t want to be the ones who cause my daughter's classmates to miss out on the exam either.
FEAR OF MISSING THE EXAM
A perfect storm may be brewing for students taking their PSLE this year.
Besides taking a major national exam in the middle of a worrying surge of COVID-19 infections, my daughter and her 2021 cohort will come under the new scoring regime.
The new system aims to remove the fine differentiation of the old T-score and benchmarking against other students. Regardless of the intent, students and parents will undoubtedly feel a degree of uncertainty as they face down something new and unknown.
For a PSLE parent, it feels like a Catch-22 situation.
On the one hand, we think we should do more to protect them from unnecessary exposure to COVID-19 and avoid losing the chance of actually sitting for the papers.
If children are unable to sit for this national exam due to COVID-19, “special consideration” will be granted, according to the Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board (SEAB). In awarding a grade, SEAB will refer to the performance of the affected student and the school cohort in the national and school-based exams.
But it is unsettling to know that your child’s grade may be out of their control. And parents do not yet have the collective understanding of how this concocted grade will impact their eventual secondary school admission.
PSLE is the culmination of six years of schooling and hard work, and often tens of thousands of tuition dollars for some. It’s not hard to see why we wouldn’t want our efforts to go to naught.
In this preparatory-not-yet-endemic phase, I can understand why parents would take such drastic precautionary measures, including shifting all tuition online.
SUPPORT OF FRIENDS AND TEACHERS
On the other hand, we want our child to be prepared and part of this requires being in school, where students are immersed in a conducive environment for revision, supported by their unwavering teachers going through practice papers.
So when I floated the idea of skipping one week of school to my daughter, she gave a vehement “no”.
“Because I can’t focus on my studies at home - there are too many distractions!” I think she just wants to be with her friends, but she still makes a fair point.
Some parents may be able to lay down strict rules to squeeze ever more out of content revision at home. But this comes at the unseen cost of our children missing out on the support and encouragement that comes from being surrounded by friends and teachers on this long journey.
A teacher friend also reminded me that we must not forget the power of friendship and the presence of teachers during this time.
Parents may also find some reassurance that children have been spared the brunt of COVID-19 so far. Children under the age of 12 account for 0.6 per cent of all local cases and none have developed serious illness requiring oxygen supplementation or ICU care so far, according to the health ministry.
Primary 6 children who have passed their 12th birthday can also be vaccinated, as an extra precautionary measure.
While it is good to plan for the possible scenarios, things can take an irrational turn when fear takes over the driver’s seat.
RAISING WARRIORS NOT WORRIERS
Despite our good intentions to protect our children by taking them out of school, we need to acknowledge the ever-present possibility that another one of us in the family may contract and bring home the virus.
This whole mental exercise made me question the intent of our protective ways and whether they truly serve the child’s interests.
Would keeping my child out of school unwittingly convey to her that the greatest priority here is taking the exam, and less her well-being, her friendships or her journey of learning?
If we’re not careful, our children may start to internalise that they lack their own internal resources to handle life’s challenges. When toddlers learn to walk, you must accept that they will fall.
The day I dropped my daughter off at school for her PSLE oral exam, she was immediately met by good friends who were waiting for her. They huddled together in a messy tangle of pre-exam emotions, but still managed to exude an air of hope.
And as my daughter grows, it strikes me that I may not always be the one she turns to in her times of need. I wish I could isolate her in a bubble of safety forever, but I know that would be neither practical nor ideal.
PSLE is just one exam among many others in our children’s lives. So maybe it’s not so much about protecting our kids as it is about shoring up resilience for them and ourselves during this stressful period.
I still won’t tempt fate. Over the next two weeks, we’ll be cutting down our family’s social footprint to the bare minimum. Even though my daughter is fully vaccinated, I’ll still take pains to remind her and her younger siblings to always keep their masks on in school except when eating.
But let’s remember that education goes beyond a score that fits our children into a secondary school, and that our actions shape the attitudes our children carry for life.
Our children will weather the perfect storm if we don’t only teach them to navigate the calm seas.
June Yong is a mother of three, a freelance writer and owner of Mama Wear Papa Shirt, a blog that discusses parenting and education in Singapore.