April 06, 2020
School Meals Programme and Access to Computer and Broadband During School Closure
Name and Constituency of Member of Parliament
Assoc Prof Walter Theseira, Nominated Member of Parliament
To ask Minister for Education (a) how many students currently benefit from the School Meals Programme; (b) whether equivalent financial assistance will be provided to students in lieu of the School Meals Programme subsidy if schools are closed or students are required to stay at home during the COVID-19 outbreak; and (c) whether the Ministry will study expanding the School Meals Programme to provide financial assistance for students during school holidays to avoid “holiday hunger”.
To ask the Minister for Education what plans have been made to ensure that all students, particularly those on the Ministry's Financial Assistance Scheme and Independent School Bursary Scheme, have the computer and broadband Internet resources to access online learning from their homes in the event of school closure or stay-at-home requirements due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
1. The Member first asked about School Meals. In 2019, around 49,000 primary and secondary school students on Financial Assistance Scheme (FAS) benefitted from Schools Meals programme.
2. As the School Meals Programme provides subsidies for meals purchased from the school canteen, the students will not be able to benefit from it if they are not in school. When schools move to full Home-Based Learning on 8 Apr 2020, this Wednesday, two things will happen for us to continue to assist these students.
3. First, some of these students will continue to come to school. Today and tomorrow, schools will reach out to these students, to see who still needs to come to school because they do not have the support at home to do Home-Based Learning. We will register them and continue to let them come to school during this circuit breaker period.
4. Secondly, MOE will work with MSF and through our community partners, such as Social Service Offices, to provide financial and other support for their families. This is what we do currently for low-income households facing financial difficulty throughout the year, but the Social Service Offices will do more to help needy families access financial assistance schemes rolled out as part of COVID-19 support measures. I should also add that other than Social Service Offices, there are also other community partners such as the Community Development Councils (CDCs) and donors, who are coming forward to try to support these students, often through food vouchers, for example, so that they can continue to get their meals. The CDCs are studying this and once the details worked out, they will announce the new measures.
5. On Assoc Professor Walter Theseira's second question on Home-Based Learning and the availability of devices and Internet resources, let me first clarify that Home-Based Learning is not only done through online learning. The two are not the same. A substantial part of Home-Based Learning can also be in the form of readings or assignments to be done offline. Schools will plan and implement a Home-Based Learning programme that best suits the context of their curriculum and the profiles of their students.
6. But the Member is rightfully concerned about the availability of devices and Internet access. This has been an issue MOE has been preoccupied with, ever since we were planning to do Home-Based Learning. Based on a 2018 survey by IMDA, fortunately 98% of households with school-going children have access to a computer, and almost 100% have home Internet and broadband. But of course, this is a national survey. When you go to the community, to the households, many of them still encounter challenges.
7. So, most students are reasonably equipped but there will always be a minority that we must take care of, as we move to Home-Based Learning. We have a few responses.
8. One, for the students without computers and Internet access at home, schools will loan devices to these students. As of last Friday, we have loaned out 3,300 devices, tablets as well as laptops, and over 200 dongles were also loaned to students without Internet access at home. Today and tomorrow, we expect more parents and students to come forward, and we will loan them more if need be, so that everyone is properly equipped. That’s why we are starting our Home-Based Learning on Wednesday, because we need to get this done properly.
9. We are also thankful to corporate sponsors who stepped forward to provide free dongles and Internet subscriptions to many of these students. In addition, our schools can also provide students with safe spaces within the school premises, so that they can come to school to use computers and the Internet in school, doing their Home-Based Learning, with supervision from the teachers.
10. Those from low-income families can apply for subsidised computers and free broadband through IMDA’s NEU PC Plus programme. They have recently enhanced it.
11. There is no doubt, as the Member had pointed out, that when schools have to move to full Home-Based Learning, students from the lower income group will be the most adversely affected. That is why we are moving to full Home-Based Learning only now, and not earlier, because we do know that it creates a lot of disruption to people’s lives, and children from lower income and vulnerable families are the most affected.
12. But we are doing it now in support of the circuit breaker measures that will come into force this week. This is part of our psychological unity, and students, teachers and parents are all a part of it. As the Speaker has said, we all rise to the call as one united people in tackling this crisis.
13. As it is, we can see long-term absenteeism starting to creep up in schools, because of all the restrictions that have been implemented over the past week and due to the COVID-19 measures at school as well. But now that we have taken the decision to shift into full Home-Based Learning, let us now make the best out of the situation. MOE will mobilise the necessary resources to support this group of vulnerable students.