“Together, let us mark this day as our leap of faith towards realizing Ligtas na Balik-Eskwela.”

This was the statement of Department of Education (DepEd) on the first day of the pilot implementation of face-to-face learning for 100 public schools in the Philippines on November 15.

The use of the idiomatic expression “leap of faith” is somehow fitting.

Despite the relative decline of COVID-19 cases and easing of quarantine protocols, the limited reopening of schools may still depend on whether the nation will experience a significant improvement of its pandemic situation after a huge spike in cases last September.

However, the reopening of schools for in-person learning can be also viewed as a long-overdue measure, as the Philippines is considered to be the last country to commence limited in-person classes worldwide. Still, the current measure is just part of the overall plan of the government to gradually reopen schools across all grade and year levels.

This measure is considered a huge deal on moving forward, so much so that there have been many considerations and suggestions on how it should be played out. Several policies have been implemented ahead of the scheduled classes, particularly the vaccination of minors ages twelve (12) to seventeen (17), which makes up for about 11.54% of the total population.

Yet, concerns on the success of the limited in-person classes initiative should rest on the country’s readiness to reopen schools and other sectors while still dealing with the ongoing health crisis. But it still begs the question, how ready are the Filipinos for the in-person learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic?

Started from the bottom now we’re— still at the bottom

“We cannot wait for all these to settle before we open schools, because all over the world, schools are already opening. Our students will be left behind,” DepEd Sec. Briones claimed.

Four months after the first confirmed COVID-19 case in the Philippines, the DepEd was already finalizing the Basic Education Learning Continuity Plan (BE-LCP). Containing the essential learning competencies and multiple learning delivery modalities, BE-LCP set the public’s eyes towards an upcoming remote-learning-based academic year by August 2020 for young learners.

Before long, the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) released Memorandum Order No. 4, s. 2020 in September last year, which included guidelines on Flexible Learning (FL) for college students for immediate implementation later that month.

In the middle of crises in the country’s healthcare and economy, DepEd’s BE-LCP and CHED’s FL pushed for opening classes through virtual classrooms or by utilizing printed modules, TV-based instructions, and radio-broadcasted lessons to continue the process of teaching and learning.

“We declare our victory over COVID-19, the destroyer of our lives, the destroyer of our economy and of our way of life and society. But we will not allow COVID-19 to destroy our children’s education and their future,” Sec. Briones said during the School Opening Day National Program as she welcomed 24.7M enrolees on October 5, 2020.

But the “victory” she declared may not be how it really was, or still is, for everyone. The 24.7M learners she showed off only comprised 89.13% of the previous pre-pandemic school year (2019-2020). DepEd’s report itself revealed how a total of 1.3 million youth were unenrolled from the said prior enrolment. The League of Filipino Students Metro Manila (LFS-MM) noted how this has brought out the lowest number of enrolled students since 2015.

However, even the enrolled ones inevitably suffered from immense academic workloads, burnout and fatigue, homes unconducive for learning, limited load or internet, lack of laptop or phone, “an education that’s only for compliance,” and even unfortunate deaths. Thesehave been the main causes in the consistent calls for academic breaks and eases, and “Ligtas na Balik-Eskwela” — an outcry on how students do want to learn and teachers do want to teach, but are discouraged by a setup that is just not really doing it for the majority.

Groups represented by the youth, parents, and education sectors called out the non-inclusive nature of these supposed flexible learning modalities as it became more difficult for the majority to catch up on, resulting in an academic year where many students filed for Leave of Absence (LOA) and had the highest dropout rate in the recent past.

Sec. Briones insisted that Filipino students will be left behind back in August if classes won’t open soon, yet, ironically, the current educational policies are still leaving millions of Filipino students behind — way behind. The COVID-19 pandemic not only revealed how rotten our healthcare system is, but also unveiled how our education is still a privilege for a few and not a right for everyone.

To face the need for face-to-face classes

Due to unprecedented and extreme shifts brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, education experts were concerned about how an ongoing global learning crisis is creating a “lost generation” of learners.

A 2020 study by McKinsey & Co., which surveyed eight countries in total, discovered that educators had given the remote learning setup an effectivity score of 3-5 over 10, a poor assessment for a poor education system that pushes students to hang by a thread amid a health crisis.

However, in the same study, only first-world countries such as Australia, Canada, and Germany marked it with a higher score, exhibiting how access to effective and quality education is only possible for those far from the poverty line and has only widened the gap for educational inequalities.

According to Save the Children’s analysis, as they ranked countries by their vulnerable school systems, the Philippines is included in the high-risk category. As a third-world country, it is not deemed as a surprise considering how they characterized it by emotional or behavioral challenges, academic performance, and/or unstable home lives. And those who are taking the greatest risk are the youngest learners who are in their critical development age.

Studies have shown that in-person positive school experience is necessary for their growth as individuals and predicts their future social, emotional, and educational success. But, with the lack of interaction from children their own age and isolated with pseudo-teachers or student-proxies that answer their activities at their own homes, they are already falling behind their expected progress.

Quoting the United Nations Children’s Fund Philippines (UNICEF PH), “children who fall behind in learning during the early years often stay behind for the remaining time they spend in school, and the gap widens over the years.”

Around August 2020, the World Health Organization released a statement that school closures should only be taken into account if there are no other alternatives, and to adhere to that mainly depended on the available resources, public pressure, country’s gross domestic product (GDP), and infection rates.

Dr. Maria Liza Antoinette Gonzales, Associate Dean for Faculty and Students of the UP College of Medicine, said that children are unlikely to be a major source of transmission of the virus as they only comprise about 10% who have tested positive for the virus across the Philippines and other countries.

She also highlighted that unless they are diagnosed with prior medical conditions, COVID-19 is generally mild in children and adolescents. Some factors that the health sector is considering in the reduced susceptibility of children, compared to adults, include the adaptive and active innate immune system, less lifetime exposure to toxins like cigarette smoke and air pollution, and the absence of age-related comorbidities such as hypertension and diabetes.

“However, due to the lack of a more systematic testing of children, the true burden of pediatric SARS-CoV-2 infection remains unclear,” Dr. Gonzales added.

Thus, the majority of students in all grade and year levels, parents, education, and health sectors are for the reopening of classes as it stands as an inevitable sound reason for the national government to level up their COVID-19 response: through a widened range of mass testing, more comprehensive contact tracing, and expanded vaccination programs.

How prepared are we?

On November 15, 2021, 100 out of 48,000 public elementary schools started their pilot face-to-face classes – less than a percent of its total number, two months since the start of the academic year and more than 20 months after the Duterte administration ordered its temporary closure.

Out of 100 schools, two schools in Zambales were deferred to reopen their face-to-face classes after some of its teachers tested positive for COVID-19, while another school decided to postpone its first day as teachers waited for their COVID-19 test results.

Even though Education Secretary Leonor Briones declared that the pilot testing of face-to-face classes was a success, Alliance of Concerned Teachers NCR Union President Vladimer Quetua begged to disagree, saying that it’s too early to declare the pilot face-to-face a success, especially with the incident at Zambales.

“Ang barometer naman natin ng success ay hindi lang dahil binuksan ang klase, that’s it. Alam naman natin na dapat titingnan mo ito nang isang komprehensibong pagtingin,” he added.

He also said that there is a lack of face masks, alcohol, hand soaps, thermometer, and other health essentials in most schools.

On November 16, 2021, a day after the opening of classes, Education Assistant Secretary Malcolm Garma said that setting up plastic barriers in classrooms was not required and they no longer encouraged it. Garma added that they would study if existing plastic barriers would affect the students’ learning process and behavior, although these materials give the parents assurance on the student’s safety.

“Tingin namin hindi na nararapat ’yong mga [nabanggit mo na] plastic barrier, kasi napatunayan nga na ‘pag bakunado naman na kahit papaano ay makakaiwas dito. Marami pang iba na pwede paggamitan.Tingin namin para lang may masabi na ‘may pinagawa kami’, pero hindi ’yon ang mga essentials,” Quetua said.

The Philippine COVID-19 Living Clinical Practice Guidelines found no studies on the efficacy of physical barriers in preventing COVID-19 infections. They also added how two computational fluid-particle dynamics simulation studies showed that physical barriers could potentially reduce aerosol transmission within shared spaces such as classrooms or airplane cabins.

Quetua also noted the need for mass hiring school health personnel, implementing the special vaccination program, regular COVID-19 testing, and screening strategy for all education stakeholders.

In addition, DepEd recently released a statement on how ‘traumatic’ it would be for students to undergo swab testing, but Dr. Joshua San Pedro, co-convenor of Coalition for People’s Right to Health (CPRH) opposed this on a press conference saying, “Kailangan tandaan na tungkulin ng paaralan na siguraduhin ang kaligtasan at kalusugan… mas traumatic ang magkasakit sa COVID19 o mamatay dahil sa nakahahawang sakit kahit pwede naman sanang maiwasan.”

On financial matters, the 32 million allotted budget isn’t enough to cover all the expenses, according to Quetua.

DepEd Undersecretary for Finance Annalyn Sevilla said they issued guidelines to release Php 100,000 per school to serve as initial funding support. The provision of supplemental funds to cover the financial requirements of specific provisions are supported by DepEd-DOH JMC No. 01, Series of 2021 dated September 27, 2021, Annex A, and DepEd Order No. 14, Series of 2020 dated June 25, 2020, Annex B.

Although Quetua and ACT claim that most schools aren’t ready for face-to-face classes, Analyn Vila, a public-school elementary teacher in Taguig says otherwise.

Their respective school applied for pilot testing and validation for face-to-face classes. Officials from the Department of Health, DepEd/Division Office, and local government unit inspected their rooms and equipment, isolation and recovery facilities, and observed the simulation itself.

Vila shared that their school – Ricardo P. Cruz Elementary School, prepared by removing excess chairs and tables in a room occupied before by 45 students. They also put plastic barriers for each table.

“Ready na ang school namin, kasi complete facilities. ‘Yong aming kinder room, ginawang quarantine facility, complete. At may dalawang teacher nurse kami, so, laging present sila, naka-antabay sa aming clinic at kinder room which is complete in case of emergency,” she added.

On the other hand, Marilyn Santiago, an elementary school principal in Las Piñas, expressed that open communication among the students’ parents is necessary to convince them to send their children to face-to-face classes.

“Kinakailangan talaga na magkaroon kami ng stakeholders’ convergence para at least, during that ay mapag-usapan namin at mailatag sa kanila kung ano ‘yong advantage ng mayroong face to face,” Santiago said.

As of writing, among 20 private schools allowed for in-person classes, 18 have started, while two schools deferred due to their academic calendars.

For the tertiary level, last March 2021, Commission on Higher Education approved 24 higher education institutions (HEI) to hold limited face-to-face classes for the 2nd semester of A.Y. 2021-2021. One from regions I, III, V, IX, and CAR, two from regions VII and IX, four from regions IV and VI, and seven from NCR.

Selected allied health-related degree programs, namely; Medicine, Nursing, Medical Technology/Medical Laboratory Science, Physical Therapy, and Public Health, were prioritized.

As of November 16, under the Resolution No. 148-G of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases, limited face-to-face classes are allowed on areas under Alert Levels 1, 2, and 3.

In connection to this, CHED said the application of colleges and universities for authorization starts in December 2021. They will require HEIs to retrofit their facilities for COVID-19 protection and in compliance with minimum health standards. Consideration of the COVID-19 cases of the area will be applied as well.

On the readiness of HEIs and the country’s education sector in general, Coleen Mañibo of the National Union of Students of the Philippines (NUSP) said, “Magiging handa lang tayo kung tutugunan ang mga requisites na nire-recommend ng iba’t ibang education stakeholders sa government.”

Mañibo also mentioned their recent argument with CHED, saying that the latter’s guidelines don’t meet the stakeholders’ recommendations.

“Kung ganito talaga na hindi nakikinig ang administration, ang CHED, ang DepEd sa mga ganitong recommendations, masasabi namin na hindi talaga tayo handa na ma-ensure na magiging ligtas ang mga estudyante once na sila ay sumabak sa face-to-face classes,” she added.

Moving forward: Addressing the gaps of limited in-person learning

Apart from the existing campaigns on academic easing, calls for a “Ligtas na Balik-Eskwela” have been consistently amplified by the education sector amid the pandemic.

The Back-to-School Network, meanwhile, have challenged the government since last year to address how it can uphold the students’ right to education amid the pandemic and lockdown. The group asserted that the government option of distance and flexible learning, CHEd and DepEd’s chosen terminologies, was conceptually and practically the most inaccessible, inefficient and expensive alternative mode of learning with the current education system in the country; the dropout rate is telling of this situation, they said. The group also pushed the government to study how other countries have been able to return to in-person classes, vis-à-vis its capacity to control the spread of COVID-19. They pushed for measures along with reopening of schools as the “new normal in education.” Why the Philippines was unable to reopen schools sooner, but reopened malls and tourist spots to children, was also to them telling of the government’s priorities.

Such calls have been varied, depending on the existing needs of academic communities, but all of these contained the need to introduce protocols to ensure the safety of students, highlighting the need for a back-to-school approach that does not compromise the health and safety of education stakeholders.

But, however these calls came to be, the Philippines became the last country to reopen schools in the world.

While the reopening of classrooms for limited face-to-face classes has been welcomed by the education sector as a step forward, advocacy groups such as the CPRH and the NUSP have criticized the lack of preparation in ensuring the health and safety of students, instructors, and school administrators amid the resumption of classes:

“Naglabas kami ng checklist para ma-ensure ’yong kaligtasan ng mga estudyante. But, ’yon, hindi lahat ng nasa checklist ay na-meet ng DepEd at ng Duterte administration. So, kung sa assessment itself, masasabi […] ng NUSP na kulang talaga ’yong preparation, at alarming siya kasi mahigit 20 months na tayong wala sa physical classes tapos ganoon pa rin ’yong lack of preparation,” NUSP Secretary-General Coleen Mañibo said.

“Kung masasabi nating success, s’yempre, kakasimula pa lang naman. […] Meron pa rin talagang mga sabit, lalo na sa plano natin for face-to-face learning, na ’yong panawagan nga po ever since the start of the year, na kailangan talagang pahalagahan at mapaghandaan nang mabuti lalo na ’yong usaping pangkalusugan para sa face-to-face learning,” said CPRH co-convenor Dr. Joshua San Pedro.

Mañibo further slammed the government’s unwillingness to hear their proposal, citing CHED’s recent remarks on the campaign and the “critics” of the Commission’s initiative for in-person classes in colleges and universities that they should “read the guidelines”:

“Kaya kami, nasa footing kami talaga ng pagdidikdik sa National Government na i-adopt ninyo, i-apply ninyo itong mga requisites na nire-recommend namin since last year para ma-ensure na ligtas ’yong mga stakeholders na sasabak dito sa face-to-face classes. […] Hangga’t di nila tinutugunan ‘yong mga requisites, hangga’t hindi pinopondohan ’yong ligtas na balik-eskwela, hindi tayo magiging totally handa sa pag-e-ensure na magiging ligtas ’yong kapakanan ng mga guro, mga estudyante, at ng iba pang kawani,” she explained.

Both NUSP and CPRH, along with other progressive groups, recently proposed five key health measures that could aid in “building confidence” for the safe resumption of classes. These measures are mainly health-based recommendations that aim towards schools, including weekly antigen tests, special vaccination programs in areas nearby school premises, retrofitting of classrooms, mass hiring of school nurses, and allocation of funding for medical support for COVID-19 infected individuals and close contacts.

Yet, despite being a health-based proposal, San Pedro clarified that the campaign is built upon the concerns and initiatives of students, parents, and teachers, and is aimed to gain trust in the reopening of classes while still addressing concerns with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Syempre hindi naman po siya purely usaping pangkalusugan, hindi lang siya purely usaping pampamilya lamang. Kaya kailangan talagang magkaroon ng pag-uusap at koordinasyon sa pagitan ng iba’t ibang mga sektor para magkaroon ng mga demands, lalo na’t naghahanap din ng kasiguraduhan ang mas malawak na populasyon na maging kampante at masiguradong maging safe at successful ang pagbabalik ng mga mag-aaral sa kanilang paaralan,” San Pedro explained.

Still, with the government aiming to continue with its gradual reopening of schools, as evidenced by the Duterte administration’s recent approval of assessment for additional academic institutions that can join the ongoing limited face-to-face scheme, both NUSP and CPRH said that real improvements and mitigation of future surges is possible if the government is willing to hear the calls from the sectors.

“Sa ngayon, patuloy naman na nananawagan na hopefully magkaroon ng magandang response, or kahit na mag-agree man lang na may mga bagay na kailangan pang ayusin o mapaghandaan, lalo na sa mga high risk o potential high risk areas na hindi natin malalaman kung wala naman talagang testing. Patuloy pa rin ’yong pananawagan sa mga local public schools, sa mga health boards, as well as sa DepEd officials na sana mas maunawaan kung ano nga ba ang pinaglalaban at kung ano ang panawagan ng maraming magulang, mag-aaral, at manggagawang pangkalusugan,” San Pedro said.

“Ang pinaglalaban namin dito, hindi dapat pinagbabangga ’yong karapatan natin sa edukasyon at ’yong karapatan natin upang maging ligtas sa gitna ng pandemya. Kung may ganoong kompromiso, talagang masasabi natin na hindi okay ’yong response kasi kailangang mamili ng estudyante kung mag-aaral ba siya or pipiliin niya bang maging ligtas sa virus.  Hindi dapat pinagbabangga ’yong mga ganitong batayang karapatan,” Mañibo said.


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