How can PH reopen schools safely? Unicef cites other countries' experience

Jaehwa Bernardo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Sep 08 2021 01:41 PM

Two students from Suluan Island in Guiuan, Eastern Samar review their notes on May 23, 2021.
Two students from Suluan Island in Guiuan, Eastern Samar review their notes on May 23, 2021. Alren Beronio, ABS-CBN News

MANILA — When the pandemic forced Philippine schools to close and shift to remote learning, it also changed Miriam Villanueva's daily routine.

She had to learn to wake up as early as 3 a.m. to read lessons on her children's learning modules, which she would teach them later in the day.

It's one of the struggles that she and her fellow mothers from a farming community in Dasmariñas, Cavite face with distance education, which will continue to be the norm in the new school year scheduled to start on Sept. 13.

"Hindi namin matantiya kung natuto ang aming mga anak last school year. 'Yon po ang pinaka-talagang suliranin namin dahil... hindi naman [po kami lahat] nakatapos ng elementarya. Eh ang mga tinuturuan namin ay mas mataas pa 'yong aral ng mga anak para sa'min," Villanueva said.

(We can't tell if our children really learned last school year. That's our problem because... not all of us parents finished elementary school. The children we're teaching are in grade levels much higher than what we finished.)

While Villanueva seemed open to the idea of resuming in-person classes, she admitted she was hesitant because she was unsure about how the government could ensure the safety of students.

President Rodrigo Duterte has repeatedly rejected the Department of Education's proposal to conduct a dry run of limited in-person classes in areas with low risk of COVID-19 infection, citing concerns over more infectious variants of the virus.

The Philippines and Venezuela are the only 2 countries in the world that have not held partial or full in-person classes since the start of the pandemic last year.

While there are risks to the resumption of in-person learning, other countries have learned to safely reopen schools so their students will not be affected by the negative consequences of prolonged school closures, according to an official from the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) in the Philippines.

"There are some risks as part of the process [of reopening schools] but what the countries have been doing is to learn to live in this new COVID-19 world, and this includes giving the opportunities for children to learn and not be affected by the negative impact of keeping schools closed," Isy Faingold, head of education work for Unicef-Philippines, said in a webinar on Wednesday.

"We have to do this (resuming in-person classes) gradually, on a voluntary basis, learning from the experiences from other countries but adapting to the experience from the Philippines," he said.

At the webinar, Faingold discussed the best practices from other countries in resuming in-person learning.

Some countries implemented a "phased" reopening of schools, starting with low-risk areas (such as neighbors Vietnam and Indonesia) or resuming in-person learning for those in the early grades or senior high school, based on Faingold's presentation.

An advantage for starting with those in early grades, Faingold noted, is that children are less likely to get COVID-19 and they only develop mild symptoms or are asymptomatic when they do get infected.

Children in the early grades also find remote learning more difficult compared to older students, he said. 

Schools in Canada, the United Kingdom and Singapore created "classroom bubbles," which are "groups of students that interact among themselves."

"It helps to limit the closure if infection is detected. You don't have to close the whole school but you just ask the bubble, the group of students... to isolate," he said.

Singapore also gave its teachers microphones so they can still be heard by students despite wearing face masks, Faingold said.

Schools in Madagascar and Senegal, meanwhile, implemented markings and seating arrangements in classrooms and public transport to encourage physical distancing.

Other countries also reduced class sizes for face-to-face sessions and implemented staggered school days.

"[Students] don't have to go 5 days a week but just 2 days and then students rotate. Classes are in shifts or reorganized groups," Faingold explained.

Some countries also recruited temporary teachers to support smaller class sizes while Denmark made use of outdoor spaces.

Myanmar also offered "parenting education tips" in 25 ethnic languages while Jamaica established regional parent helplines to guide parents in distance education, Faingold said.

Faingold also said the government should also prepare protocols once a student participating in face-to-face classes gets infected.

"Eventually, there could be an outbreak but as part of the planning, there should be how to react to that, how to isolate [the children]," he said.

Continued school closures 'ridiculous'

Meanwhile, Mercedes Arzadon, convenor of the Movement for Safe, Equitable, Quality, and Relevant (SEQuRe) Education, said it was "ridiculous" that Philippine schools remain closed considering other countries' experiences.

"There have been plenty of studies and successful experiences from other countries that prove safe school reopening is not only possible, but necessary," said Arzadon, who is also a professor at the University of the Philippines College of Education.

"We’ve already allowed malls and restaurants and even casinos and cockpits to operate in many places, but why haven’t we opened our schools yet?" she said in a statement.

Azarcon said resumption of in-person classes must not be dependent on the country's vaccine rollout, adding that the government must create an "effective plan for safe reopening of schools."

The Department of Education has been working with the Department of Health in crafting guidelines for the proposed dry run, which would include 120 schools in low-risk areas.

Education Undersecretary Nepomuceno Malaluan earlier said class sizes would be reduced and other health protocols would be in place to avoid infections among students.


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