MANILA (UPDATE) — President Rodrigo Duterte has allowed the dry run of limited face-to-face classes in areas considered "low risk" to COVID-19, heeding calls to safely reopen schools to address what experts call an education "crisis" in the country.
Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque and Education Secretary Leonor Briones announced Duterte's decision during the Palace briefing on Monday.
Briones could not give an exact date as to when the dry run would start but said the Department of Education (DepEd) would implement it immediately upon receiving further instructions from the President.
According to Briones' presentation at the briefing, 100 public schools that have passed a "readiness assessment" will participate in the dry run, and the DepEd will publicize the list "very soon."
She said the schools must have adequate facilities in order to ensure that social distancing and other health protocols are followed.
"Very, very strict ang health standards natin," she said.
(Our health standards are very, very strict.)
Briones said the DepEd is still identifying 20 private schools that would join the pilot implementation.
The education chief noted that participating schools must seek approval from their respective local government units, and students who will join the dry run need a "written consent" from their parents.
Different from traditional face-to-face
Only learners from Kindergarten, Grades 1 to 3, and technical-vocational students from senior high school (SHS) will participate in the dry run, which will also see reduced class sizes, Briones said.
"Ang face-to-face [classes] na konsepto ngayon, iba sa face-to-face na kilala natin," she said.
(Our concept of face-to-face classes now is different from how we used to know it.)
Kindergarten to Grade 3 students will spend a maximum of 3 hours in school, while SHS students will have 4 hours.
The limited in-person instruction will complement the current distance learning setup, according to Briones' presentation.
The pilot test will run for 2 months, after which the government will determine if more schools can hold limited in-person classes, Briones said.
"Kung safe ang pilot, if it is effective, then we will gradually increase. Ang mahalaga, bantayan natin ang risk assessment. 'Pag may pagbabago sa risk assessment, then talagang titigilin natin," she said.
(If the pilot is safe, if it is effective, then we will gradually increase. What's important is we monitor the risk assessment. If there is a change in risk assessment, then we will stop this.)
Vaccination of teachers
Briones said teachers aged 65 years and below can participate in the dry run as long as they do not have comorbidities.
Teachers participating in the dry run are not required to be vaccinated against COVID-19, she added.
Last week, Education Undersecretary Alain Pascua said around 380,000 or 40 percent of DepEd's teaching and non-teaching personnel have been vaccinated against COVID-19.
Roque said Duterte approved the dry run as the chief executive recognized that the need for face-to-face classes was "not just an education issue."
"Kinakailangan na nating mag-pilot ng face-to-face dahil ito po'y hindi lang issue ng edukasyon. Issue na rin po ito [ng] health, mental health ng ating mga kabataan," Roque said.
"At issue na rin po ito ng ekonomiya kasi baka mayroon tayong henerasyon na mawala dahil wala po tayong face-to-face," he added.
(We need to pilot face-to-face classes because this is no longer just an issue of education. This is also an issue of health, mental health of our youth. And this is also an economic issue because we might lose a generation because we don’t have face-to-face classes.)
The Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT), in a statement, welcomed the approval of the dry run, which it considered "significant step towards improving the delivery of education amid the pandemic."
But even as some schools are set to hold in-person classes, the government must continue to meet the needs of other distance learning modalities, ACT said.
The approval of the dry run comes after various groups called for the resumption of in-person classes, citing the limitations of distance or remote learning in the Philippines, a country where internet access remains uneven.
Isy Faingold, education chief of the United Nations Children's Fund in the Philippines, earlier said prolonged school closures would "worsen" a "learning crisis" that plagued the country even before the pandemic.
Philippine schools have been closed since March 2020 in a bid to stop exposure to COVID.
Duterte had twice rejected the proposal for the dry run, citing fears of more infectious COVID-19 variants.
As of Monday, more than 28 million students have enrolled in basic education for School Year 2021-2022, the DepEd said. The figure is higher than last year's 26.2 million enrollees and the pre-pandemic figure of 27 million students.
The Philippines, as of Sunday, has recorded a total of 2,366,749 confirmed COVID-19 cases, of which, 178,196 are active, according to the Department of Health.
As of the same day also, 18.5 million people in the country are already fully vaccinated against COVID-19, while 22.8 million have received their first shot. The government aims to fully vaccinate more than 77 million individuals to achieve herd immunity against the respiratory disease.
— With a report from Jamaine Punzalan, ABS-CBN News