The possibility of looking back to school or face-to-face classes is now eyed after a long debate among educator solons, students, school administrations and other concerned groups musing upon its gradual implementation in the so-called “new normal” under the global health crisis.

Commission on Higher Education chairman Prospero De Vera clarified that the resumption of physical classes would be optional for higher education institutions (HEIs), emphasizing that it will be possibly for courses with activities which cannot be done virtually especially those under the health-related programs.

Meanwhile, President Rodrigo Duterte approved on Monday, December 14,  the pilot implementation of looking back into physical classes for select schools among low-risk areas in January next year. It must be noted that the president said in July that he will prohibit face-to-face classes under a “new normal” situation until a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available in the country.

On Medical Internship

Among the activities also that cannot be done online is the internship for medical students. 

In fact, the internship of College of Medicine at the University of the Philippines (UP) in Manila at the Philippine General Hospital (PGH) has been approved by the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Diseases (IATF) last June 19.

Around 80% of the country adhered to the ordered suspension of the CHED in conducting physical classes unless approved by IATF or until the area is under the most relaxed community quarantine, the modified general community quarantine (MGCQ). Meanwhile, an exemption was made for trainings and assessment under Technical Education and Skills Development (TESDA) as well as the medical internships in UP College of Medicine.

Initial inspections among schools

On December 1, De Vera along with National Task Force COVID-19 Chief Implementer Carlito Galvez Jr. have inspected facilities in Our Lady of Fatima University (OLFU) in Valenzuela to assess the possibility of face-to-face classes in January.

“Maybe we can only start with the health-related programs like medicine, nursing, and physical therapy kasi hindi ka magiging tagalong na doktor o nurse kung hindi ka talaga pupunta sa ospital,” De Vera mused upon during the inspection among facilities in OLFU.

In OLFU, the school installed health information signages and placed markers inside its buildings for students and personnel to observe physical distancing in accordance to health and safety protocols. Furthermore, the school is set to cater eight (8) students only per class as its regular classroom template.

Vaccine czar Galvez furthered OLFU’s health protocols can serve as a template for other schools planning to also hold limited face-to-face classes.

Ahead of the OLFU inspection, De Vera also clarified that CHED has yet to issue guidelines on limited face-to-face classes affirming that “it continues to be a set of rules that we are refining”. 

“We will look at retrofitted campuses to see if they can develop model that other universities can copy,” De Vera said

The commission has then vowed to consult local government units (LGUs) to inspect universities beforehand following the health and safety guidelines set by the commission and IATF which will be released within the month.

“If the retrofitting is good, then we will have more confidence that when the second semester comes in January, we can start the opening [of face-to-face classes] very slowly as the safety of students and faculty members are not compromised,” De Vera emphasized.

The University of the East (UE) has also mused upon the implementation of limited face-to-face classes in their second semester for programs “that absolutely need them”.

“Classes will end before Christmas. We are now discussing possible limited face-to-face classes in areas that absolutely need them like in Dentistry and other health programs,”  said the UE President and Chief Academic Officer Ester Albano Garcia in her 2020 Christmas message to the UE Community.

Research expert backs face-to-face classes

Meanwhile, University of the Philippines Professor and OCTA Research fellow Guido David expressed support for face-to-face classes in low-risk areas, only that he specified in particular of the elementary level as younger children “tend to be less of a risk for transmission” of COVID-19.

“In higher education, this could pose more problems because older students will […] need more mobility, they tend to move around a lot. It could cause an increase in public transportation capacity and that may lead to community transmission,” David explained.

The research expert also suggested that the classes must be done in open, ventilated area as the closed, poorly ventilated room could pose a higher risk among students.

“I know it’s hard to teach in classes where the temperature is quite warm, but if I were to teach for example […] outdoors. The risk would actually be very, very low,” David added.

The Department of Health (DOH) seconded David’s proposition, saying it was open to the idea of resuming face-to-face classes only in areas with “low to minimal risk” of COVID-19.

Health Secretary Francisco Duque III relayed in a press briefing on December 2 that DOH can draft the guidelines along with the Department of Education (DepEd); however, it must be upon the approval of President Rodrigo Duterte.

In a press briefing last November 24, Education Secretary Leonor Briones also affirmed that DepEd is making rounds of deliberation with regard to the possibility of conducting limited physical classes in 2021 given the recent developments on the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Depende po ‘yan sa Pangulo kung papahintulutan ito. ‘Yong mga guidelines, gagawa tayo jointly with DepEd para kung magkaroon man ng limited face-to-face classes (ay) sisiguraduhin natin na sa mga lugar na low to minimal risk ang COVID-19 cases,” Duque said.

The health secretary also note that in case the President nods to the limited and gradual implementation of physical classes, local hospitals must be readily available.

Meanwhile, Presidental spokesperson Harry Roque affirmed Duterte’s approval as regards the recommendation of DepEd for such plan.

DepEd will further coordinate with the COVID-19 National Task Force upon the implementation of dry run which will abide the health and safety protocols.

“We need to emphasize that face-to-face classes in schools where this may be allowed will not be compulsory, but rather voluntary on the part of the learner or parents,” Roque emphasized.

‘Having said this, a parent’s permit needs to be submitted for the students to participate in face-to-face classes,” he added.

In the past few weeks, the Vice President Leni Robredo and other senators have also supported the call for the conduct of limited face-to-face classes in areas with no community transmission of COVID-19 ensuing that children would not be deprived of their right to education. 

Accordingly, Back-to-School network welcomed the statements of senators who are looking into the idea of re-opening of schools along with the observance of health and safety protocols included in the “new normal” phase in education.

The group scored the more than 2.7 million dropouts amid the shift to distance and flexible learning which has left many students behind. They also enumerated difficulties due to the prolonged stay-at-home learning endured by students as well as their families.

• Parents or guardians bore the brunt of teaching younger students.

• Families had to spend more to be able to comply—even those in the modular mode of learning had to have at least one smartphone and data load from time to time. This was despite many Filipinos having already lost their jobs because of the prolonged lockdowns.

• Many students had to print their own modules.

• Many college students also suffered from difficulties of distance or remote learning, leading to calls for ease, break or ending the semester.

• Those the group encountered in typhoon-stricken areas lamented how it would be more difficult for them now to return to distance or remote learning after the typhoons hit their communities as modules, gadgets, school supplies, personal belongings, and livelihood among many others were washed out

Seven months have already passed since the Metro Manila was put into various quarantine methods along with the school systems ordered to shut down. This in fact has shown that many were challenged as regards accessibility and quality of education under distance and flexible learning amid the continuing threat of COVID-19 which in fact has skyrocketed to 450, 733 infected individuals with 8,757 accounted number of deaths.  

“There is not one story that distance learning is more effective, easier on pocket for the student or the family, or is better than physical classes that the government has disallowed,” the network concluded.

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