MANILA—The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) remains a strong advocate of the safe reopening of schools in the Philippines, the only country in the East Asia and Pacific region that has not had any form of in-person classes since March 2020, an official said Wednesday.
In an interview with ABS-CBN News, Behzad Noubary, deputy representative of UNICEF Philippines, said the organization respects the government's decision to keep schools closed.
Last week, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said President Rodrigo Duterte rejected again the proposed pilot run of limited face-to-face classes, as the country has yet to roll out its COVID-19 vaccination program.
But Noubary said the UNICEF does not recommend COVID-19 vaccination to be a "prerequisite" for the reopening of classes
"We think that and would recommend that we move immediately in terms of opening in low-risk areas and taking an incremental approach and of course putting the mitigation measures in place," Noubary explained.
"As you know, there is no vaccine right now that is globally approved for under the age of 16. Trials are in place and we may have that eventually."
The UNICEF will also advocate to prioritize teachers for COVID-19 jabs, to "make it safer" to reopen schools.
Safely reopening schools for Noubary means that physical distancing and other safety measures against the coronavirus are implemented.
"[Even] if that means that we need to alternate days of the week for classes, numbers to be reduced, as well as ensuring that personal hygiene measures are respected, upgrading the water sanitation facilities in the schools," he said.
Focusing on learning is also equally important as ensuring the safety of students and educators, Noubary added.
"It's not that we can just pick up where we left off. So we need to ensure that there's diagnostics on the reopening of the school, to assess where the kids are now and, of course, providing remedial learning opportunities for catching up," he said.
In a statement, the Department of Education (DepEd) said nearly 2,000 schools have been identified as "possible participants" for the pilot run of limited face-to-face classes.
The agency added it is in constant coordination with authorities and health experts, parents, and teachers to guarantee the safe reopening of schools.
"We have also started consulting our various stakeholders to address challenges in the distance learning set-up," the DepEd said.
The cost of not opening schools
World Bank's August 2020 survey titled "Impacts of COVID-19 on Households in the Philippines" showed 81 percent of households with "school age children" said they would continue schooling when schools starts reopening.
About 80 percent of households with children aged 6 to 18 attended school before the pandemic struck. Of these, only 20 percent "continued to be engaged in learning activities during community quarantine," with distance learning being the most cited learning instruction.
Some 26,953 respondents from urban and rural areas across all regions also participated in the said survey.
For the UNICEF, the cost of not opening schools goes beyond education. Noubary said the longer students were out of school, the less likely they will return.
"You see a big difference in terms of children in low-income families who are even more willing to send their children back to school, of course, because that also prohibits them from engaging in their economic activity," said the official, who also described educational institutions as safe havens for children experiencing violence in their homes.
"Schools beyond being a place of learning for children also serve as a place for socialization . . . As well as a refuge for children who may be experiencing physical or psychological violence outside of the school."
Stakeholder action, best practices
The UNICEF representative said distance learning is "complementary" and cannot replace in-person learning.
But with no set date yet for the return to face-to-face classes and with the reality that distance learning "is going to be with us for some time", the UNICEF recommended ways to improve the country's remote learning strategies.
This included improving different platforms of learning such as the
digital, TV, radio, modules, reducing academic exams and having more practical assessments, ensuring internet connectivity and power supply, and strengthening the involvement of parents in their children's education.
He also suggested combining distance learning with in-person classes when the government finally allows the latter.
He cited Indonesia, Bhutan, Chile, Pakistan, Vietnam, Argentina, and Laos, among others, as countries with best practices in their shift from distance learning to slowly reopening schools.
"What we're learning from Indonesia and other countries is really the importance of taking a phased approach, incremental approach if you will. Starting with the low-risk areas and then expanding," he said, noting also the importance of coordination between the DOH and the DepEd.
"Another... is the need to adopt and prioritize curriculum to make sure really the priority aspects are the focus of the learning."
He pointed out that the UNICEF continues to work closely with the government, taking into consideration the best interest of children and the public health concern.
He hoped that the conversation will move from the choice of whether to reopen schools or not, to the safe reopening of schools.