Up to 120 schools will be reopened for limited in-person classes for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in a pilot approved by President Rodrigo Duterte, officials said Monday.
“After thorough consideration and consultations with stakeholders, I have decided to approve the request. This is how we go forward,” the President said later in a televised address.
While nearly every country in the world has already partially or fully reopened schools for face-to-face lessons, the Philippines has kept them closed since March 2020.
“We have to pilot face-to-face (classes) because this is not just an issue for education, it’s an issue for the children’s mental health,” presidential spokesman Harry Roque told reporters.
“It’s also an issue for the economy because we might lose a generation if we don’t have face-to-face (classes),” he added.
Under guidelines approved by Duterte Monday, up to a hundred public schools in areas considered “minimal risk” for virus transmission will be allowed to take part in the two-month trial.
Twenty private schools can also participate.
Classrooms will be open to children in kindergarten to grade three, and senior high school, but the number of students and hours spent in face-to-face lessons will be limited.
Kindergarten classes will be limited to 12 learners and should not last more than three hours per session.
Grade Levels 1 to 3 will have 16 learners each at three hours maximum.
Only 20 technical-vocational learners will be allowed in five senior high schools. They will be allowed to have in-person classes for a maximum of four hours only.
Roque said classes will be held on half-days and will only be every other week.
Schools wanting to take part will be assessed for their preparedness and need approval from local governments to reopen. Written consent from parents will be required.
“If the pilot class is safe, if it is effective, then we will gradually increase it,” said Education Secretary Leonor Briones.
She said the pilot face-to-face classes could start in two months.
Duterte rejected previous proposals for a pilot reopening of schools for fear children could catch COVID-19 and infect elderly relatives.
But there have been growing calls from the United Nations Children’s Fund and many teachers for a return to in-person learning amid concerns the prolonged closure was exacerbating an education crisis in the country.
It is not clear when the pilot will begin, or which schools or areas will be included.
A “blended learning” program, which involves online classes, printed materials and lessons broadcast on television and social media, will continue.
Party-list Rep. France Castro of the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT) said the decision was long overdue.
Fifteen-year-olds in the Philippines were at or near the bottom in reading, mathematics, and science, according to data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
Most students attend public schools where large class sizes, outdated teaching methods, lack of investment in basic infrastructure such as toilets, and poverty have been blamed for youngsters lagging.
ACT urged the government to retrofit classrooms for safe limited face-to-face classes; install health facilities such as adequate comfort rooms, hand-washing facilities, school clinic, and others; hire health and sanitation personnel; conduct health checks and mass testing on all education workers and learners who will participate in in-classroom learning; provide free medical supplies and personal protective equipment; ensure a safe mode of transportation; and implement health protocols such as reducing the class size to a maximum of 15 students.
Senator Sherwin Gatchalian thanked the President for allowing the dry run of limited face-to-face classes in areas with minimal risk of COVID-19.
Gatchalian, chairman of the Senate basic education committee, said this was a significant step forward in efforts to restore normalcy in the education sector.
A party-list lawmaker, meanwhile, voiced concern over the conduct of limited face-to-face classes.
Rep. Alfredo Garbin, Jr. said that face-to-face classes should happen only if the attending students, their teachers, and the transport drivers are fully vaccinated and minimum health standards are met.
“Anything less would be unsafe for students, teachers, and their families,” Garbin said in a statement.
“When full vaccination of the teachers and 18+ students are achieved, the first to reopen should be the colleges, universities, and technical-vocational, and alternate learning classes because the students are adults in these schools,” he said.
Rep. Alfred Vargas of Quezon City urged national government agencies to address several concerns raised by teachers and education advocacy groups before beginning limited face-to-face classes this school year.
These concerns range from additional hazard pay for teachers, enforcement of health protocols, and identifying courses where face-to-face classes are indispensable.
“We should be prepared for the resumption of face-to-face classes especially now that COVID cases continue to rise. The concerned government agencies must ensure that the health and safety of teachers, students, and school personnel are not compromised,” he said. With AFP
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