President Rodrigo Duterte might allow a proposed pilot test for in-person classes in some 120 schools, Malacañang said on Monday—and the Department of Education already has an idea how to roll it out.
Meanwhile, almost 18 million students, or 68.5 percent of last year's enrollees, have enlisted a week before academic year 2021-2022 for public schools, DepEd said.
If approved by the President and local governments, parents must consent to students' participation, said Education Undersecretary Nepomuceno Malaluan.
Children who need extra attention or lack instructional support at home will be prioritized.
In-person classes will only have up to 12 students in kindergarten, and up to 16 participants from grades 1 to 3. They should live within walking distance of the school and hence, would not need to take public transport, he said.
Malaluan added that classes would be limited to 3 hours and would reinforce "what will still be predominantly distance learning."
Classes would be held in open areas. Otherwise, air-conditioning will not be used, with windows and doors kept open to ensure good ventilation, he said.
The official said health protocols like temperature tests and the use of anti-virus masks and face shields would be followed.
While students will not have lunch at school, they can eat snacks at designated areas, Malaluan said.
Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority has joined education and local government officials in the ongoing public schools' cleanup operation in preparation for the upcoming school year.
MMDA chairman Benjamin Abalos Jr. explained that while there were no face-to-face classes yet because of the COVID-19 pandemic, these cleaning efforts and initiatives were still very important, especially since teachers and parents still go to school for distribution and submission of modules as part of the distance learning system or blended learning.
The Inter-Agency Task Force on COVID-19 has agreed "in principle" with the proposed limited face-to-face classes, which a "small group" of officials will present to Duterte, said spokesman Harry Roque.
“The initial reaction of the President is if it's really a pilot and will be held in areas with few COVID-19 cases, he may allow it. But it should first be in pilot areas with low cases,” he said.
The conduct of face-to-face classes has "ceased to be a purely education issue," Roque said.
"It is a multi-disciplinary issue now involving the health department" because of impact on children's mental well-being and their socialization skills, he said.
Government is also treating it as an "economic problem because we are dealing with a generation that could possibly be lost" as a result of hybrid learning, added Roque.
The 17.9 million enrolled students represent about 68.5 percent of 26.2 million enrollees last year when the country started holding distance learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, said Malaluan.
The Philippines is the only country in Southeast Asia that has yet to hold in-person classes for basic education, even on a limited scale to supplement distance-learning modalities, officials earlier noted.
Duterte has twice rejected a pilot test for face-to-face classes, the latest in February because the COVID-19 vaccination drive had yet to be launched then.
Several groups, as well as officials of the World Health Organization and United Nations Children's Fund, are pushing for the safe reopening of schools for in-person classes, citing "grave" and "far-reaching" consequences of prolonged school closures on students' physical and mental health, skills attainment, and earning prospects.
"We expect to equal, if not surpass our enrollment last year. The directive of Secretary Briones is to reach this number because we are encouraging our enrollees last year to continue this school year, and we hope those who skipped last year would return this school year.”
The deadline for enrollment ends when the school year opens on Sept. 13, he said.
On Monday, Abalos and other officials inspected Doña Juana Elementary School in Barangay Holy Spirit, Quezon City and Silanganan Elementary School in Barangay Bagong Silang, Caloocan.
According to Abalos, the MMDA accommodated requests for assistance from schools in cleaning their premises.
Personnel from the MMDA’s Metro Parkways Clearing Group, Health, Public Safety, and Environmental Protection Office, and Traffic Engineering Center conducted misting (anti-dengue) operations, cleaning, roof gutter declogging, drainage cleaning, pruning of trees, planting, and painting of pedestrian markings.
“We are focusing not just on addressing the pandemic but also on our anti-dengue efforts, through our misting operations especially since we are expecting typhoons these ‘ber’ months,” Abalos said.
The MMDA chief also said the agency will also clean canals which are the usual breeding grounds for dengue-carrying mosquitoes.
The MMDA is part of the DepEd’s Oplan Balik Eskwela – Inter Agency Task Force, which is tasked to provide guidelines in health and safety, peace and order, transportation, and other forms of support when the school year opens.
In the Senate, Sen Win Gatchalian pressed the national government to uphold the welfare of teachers, especially those falling ill with COVID-19.
Gatchalian’s call came after Education Undersecretary for Finance Annalyn Sevilla raised concerns in a public hearing that the agency proposed financial assistance for school personnel who would get infected with the coronavirus disease for School Year 2021-2022 but was not considered in the 2022 National Expenditure Program.
DepEd explained that under the national budget, it was not authorized to spend for the treatment of personnel who test positive for COVID-19. However, DepEd personnel can avail themselves of packages from the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. should they get infected.
While Gatchalian acknowledged that Congress could amend the proposed 2022 budget to consider DepEd’s proposal, he said that a special arrangement with PhilHealth—such as the creation of a special lane at the very least—would be the quickest way to provide relief to teachers.
Gatchalian assured DepEd that in crafting the 2022 budget, he would push for amendments that would authorize aiding personnel getting infected with COVID-19.
Since the implementation of the distance learning program, teachers’ groups have been lamenting the lack of financial assistance from the education department for teachers and staff who test positive for the coronavirus.
Aside from the P5,000 cash allowance in June, a Special Hardship Allowance, which is 25 percent of the teachers’ monthly basic salary, is expected to be given ahead of school opening.