MANILA — Several senators on Wednesday expressed frustration at the Department of Education (DepEd) over what they considered was weak lobbying on the proposal to hold limited face-to-face classes in areas with low risk of COVID-19 transmission.
The lawmakers made their displeasure known as the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) noted that the Philippines is 1 of only 5 countries in the world that have not reopened schools since the pandemic began last year, affecting more than 27 million Filipino students.
Education Undersecretary Nepomuceno Malaluan said at a Senate hearing that the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) has approved a joint circular between DepEd and the Department of Health (DOH) which lays down guidelines on the pilot test. The circular is expected to be issued next week.
Malaluan estimated that around a hundred schools would participate in the dry run, which is planned to take place around September to October.
But the agencies still need President Rodrigo Duterte's approval before the dry run actually pushes through, Malaluan said. The chief executive has repeatedly rejected such proposal due to concerns over more infectious variants of COVID-19.
Senators Nancy Binay and Pia Cayetano questioned whether the DepEd was sharing adequate details with the President and making enough effort to persuade him to allow the pilot test.
"We're not saying wala kayong effort, we're just saying hindi namin nakikita. So may worry kami, concern kami na nakaka-rally ba kayo in the way that other [government] agencies are rallying for their constituents?" Cayetano said as she and Binay noted how the Department of Tourism aggressively campaigned for the reopening of tourism businesses.
Cayetano also commented that a dry run, if approved, with 100 schools starting next month is "still so slow and pathetic. Talagang huling-huli na talaga tayo."
Malaluan said the DepEd has not discussed its latest and more detailed guidelines to Duterte, prompting Binay to say the agency seemed to lack a "sense of urgency."
"Kung hindi niya alam kung ano ba iyong i-implement niyo, talagang paulit-ulit na sasabihin ni Presidente na no classes... Sa tingin ko ang perception ng Presidente, it will be the same type of opening of classes, which is not the case," Binay said.
"Why wait for the next IATF [meeting], why wait for the next Cabinet meeting? The Secretary [of Education] can just probably set an appointment with the President," she said.
Senate education committee chairman Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian said the country's education sector should learn "to adjust and live with the virus," similar to how businesses have adapted to the pandemic.
Gatchalian, citing a World Bank report, warned that prolonged school closures would lead to learning losses that also affect students' earning prospects in the future.
In response to the lawmakers, Malaluan said Duterte was aware of certain "elements" of the guidelines since they were the same as past proposals.
The education official also assured lawmakers that there is urgency in DepEd to hold the pilot test.
Meanwhile, Coordinating Council of Private Educational Associations of the Philippines (COCOPEA) Managing Director Joseph Noel Estrada called on policymakers to subject private schools to separate parameters in determining if they could hold in-person classes.
Private schools have different resources and facilities such as "wider spaces" and open areas, making it easier for them to implement health protocols, said Estrada, whose group counts 2,500 private institutions as members.
Estrada also said the COCOPEA has not been consulted by the DepEd on resuming in-person classes, which Binay found unacceptable.
Malaluan said private schools were considered in crafting guidelines and there is a chance that they can be included in the dry run.
Binay also urged the DepEd to discuss the pilot test guidelines with local officials after Union of Local Authorities of the Philippines President Dakila Cua raised questions on the implementation of the dry run.
"Baka mas maganda na ngayon pa lang, dapat bini-brief na ni DepEd 'yong mga mayor, governor... hindi iyong aabot tayo sa punto na papayagan ni presidente then i-implement mo sa baba, ayaw pala ng governor, ng mga mayor," she said.
(Perhaps it would be good for DepEd to brief mayors, governors this early... and not reach the point where the president approves and you implement, but governors and mayors disagree.)
Various groups have clamored for the safe reopening of schools so limited in-person classes can complement distance learning modalities which have proved challenging for students, parents and teachers.
Classes in public schools are scheduled to start on Sept. 13 under a distance learning setup. Some private schools, meanwhile, opened their academic year as early as June.
As of early Wednesday, more than 8.5 million learners have registered in basic education, according to DepEd data.
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