MANILA - Health experts on Friday shared their thoughts in a webinar on how to safely open schools once allowed by the government amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr. Maria Liza Antoinette Gonzales, associate dean of faculty and students at the UP College of Medicine, said opening of schools must be done in selected areas and not yet nationwide.
“It has to be liked phased or in just selected areas because there are many things to consider,” said Gonzales.
The Department of Education assured the public that it was ready for the next school year, whether it would be conducted with limited face-to-face classes or through purely remote means.
Dr. Jocelyn Eusebio of the Philippine Pediatric Society also believes that face-to-face classes can be conducted in pilot areas with low risks of COVID-19.
“We have to start maybe piloting initially, in certain areas that are of low risk and to ensure that the school will have provisions for all the health and safety measures that need to be followed, and together with that also is what needs to be provided for and done if ever that the child have the illness and what are the support system that has to be provided for by caregiver,” she said.
Gonzales also noted the importance of physical classes to children who have been under lockdown since the start of the pandemic.
“There are so many advantages also of starting schooling because of the mental effect that the prolonged lack of schooling has caused our children. So we have to consider that. Maybe once we are ready, we can like open a few areas at a time knowing the situation in that area,” she said.
In her presentation in the webinar on COVID-19 in Children, organized by the University of the Philippines, in partnership with the National TeleHealth Center, Gonzales said that children account for 1 to 10 percent of the diagnosed COVID-19 cases across countries and predominantly contract mild form of infection.
“Contrary to earlier assumption, children are not a major source of COVID-19 and they are more likely to contract the disease from close contact with infected adults than from other children,” she said.
However, she added that true burden of the COVID-19 in children remains unclear due to lack of a more systematic testing of children with mild symptoms.
“It’s very likely that we are missing many cases of mild or asymptomatic children,” she said.
Gonzales also cited a recent review, which she said was the largest in terms of published studies on pediatric COVID-19 to date, which included over 9,300 children enrolled in 129 studies.
“The findings were consistent with previous reviews that identified the predominance of infection in school age children with slight male predominance and low hospitalization and mortality rates. Comorbidities were reported in approximately 30 percent of cases with immunosuppresion and lung disease as the most common comordbiities reported,” she said.
She noted that the most common symptoms from the various studies were fever and cough followed by nausea and vomiting and diarrhea.
Local data from the Salvacion (Surveillance and Analysis of COVID-19 in Children Nationwide) pediatric COVID-19 registry showed that from July 3, 2020 to May 31, 2021, it had a total of 972 patients registered. Gonzales said this is just a small proportion to the more than 142,000 pediatric cases below 20 years old that has been reported by the Department of Health.
“Majority of reported cases are patients admitted in hospitals with a small number of reported patients managed on an outpatient basis. There were slightly more males at 56 percent and disease severity was classified mild with 38 percent, moderate in 25 percent, severe, in 7 percent, and critical in 10 percent. Among the age group, children 1 to 5 years old had the greatest number of cases followed by the 11 to 15 years old,” she said.
Vaccine czar Carlito Galvez Jr. last month said that the Philippines needs to procure 60 million more COVID-19 vaccine doses should the national government include children in its inoculation program.
President Rodrigo Duterte has said that he will not allow the resumption of face-to-face classes until the country has reached herd immunity from COVID-19.
"Although, we do know that children get mild disease or not as susceptible, still they can get the infection. And so, before we open, we have to consider like is there ongoing community transmission? Are the teachers vaccinated? Are the schools, the infrastructure, are you prepared? Is there enough ventilation, enough space to be able to ensure that the children have appropriate physical space," said Gonzales.
Meanwhile, DepEd Undersecretary Diosdado San Antonio said they appreciate the inputs made by health experts who also affirmed what the agency is trying to do as it prepares for limited face-to-face classes. San Antonio was also present during the webinar.
“It will really be in phases,” he said.
He added that DepEd will also be looking into the area’s risk levels at the communities where limited face-to-face classes maybe done.
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.
“I understand, our original list of pilot schools was more than 1,000 but lately, we have to reduce it to about 300 across the country. We have to do this in phases because we have to monitor and learn from our experience and find out how we can do it in bigger scales later on,” said San Antonio.