MANILA — The Department of Education (DepEd) and Department of Health (DOH) on Monday assured the public that mechanisms are in place to ensure the safety of students and school personnel who will join the pilot test of limited in-person classes.
"Our utmost priority is the health and safety of our learners and teachers while ensuring that learning happens and learning gaps are addressed," Education Secretary Leonor Briones said in a joint statement issued by the two departments.
On the same day, Briones and Health Secretary Francisco Duque III signed a joint memorandum circular detailing the guidelines for the pilot implementation, which would take place in schools from areas deemed low-risk for COVID-19.
Briones, during the virtual program for the circular's signing, said it took the government a year and half to plan and debate the conduct of limited in-person classes.
"Now that we are in the middle of our most aggressive campaign for the vaccination of our teachers and the rest of our citizens, it is now fairly safe for us to start the pilot study," Briones said.
The DepEd was supposed to hold the pilot implementation earlier this year but President Rodrigo Duterte canceled this over fears of more contagious COVID-19 variants and because the country had yet to roll out its vaccination program at the time.
Based on the key guidelines for the pilot implementation, 95 public elementary schools, 5 senior high schools (SHS) and 20 private schools will take part in the program.
Before participating in the pilot test, the schools must secure support from the local government unit (LGU) "in the form of a resolution or letter of support" and "written consent form" from parents of students.
The DepEd and DOH are still in the process of reevaluating 638 public schools nominated by the DepEd's regional directors, which would be trimmed down to 100 for the pilot test.
The education agency is also in the process of identifying participating private schools by having its regional offices nominate one private school in their jurisdiction, based on the guidelines presented by DepEd Director for Planning Service Roger Masapol.
STUDENTS, SCHOOL PERSONNEL
Under the guidelines, only students from Kindergarten to Grade 3 learners and SHS will participate in the dry run.
Education officials earlier explained that those in the early grades found it difficult to learn by themselves, thus their inclusion in the pilot study.
Pediatricians and health experts also noted that children only experience mild COVID-19 symptoms and rarely get hospitalized when they contract the illness.
Participating SHS students are those who are required to attend "workshops and laboratories," according to the key guidelines.
It is preferred that participating learners live near the school to avoid taking public transportation.
Participating learners must not have comorbidities and will be "prioritized based on the greatest need" for in-person instruction, according to the guidelines.
The schools must also coordinate with their respective LGUs or private pediatricians to complete students' "routine infant vaccines."
Meanwhile, participating school personnel, aged 65 and below, must not have comorbidities and should be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
CLASS SIZE, CLASSROOM SETTING
The guidelines also stated that class sizes would be reduced from the usual:
- A maximum of 12 learners for kindergarten
- A maximum of 16 learners for Grades 1 to 3
- A maximum of 20 learners for SHS in a classroom
- A maximum of 12 learners for SHS in a technical-vocational-livelihood workshop/science laboratory
Students can only spend a maximum of 4.5 hours in schools, except for kindergarten learners who are only allowed up to 3 hours.
The face-to-face classes will complement distance learning modalities, with classroom sessions set to be held every other week.
Group work involving close contact and large gatherings will not be allowed, based on the guidelines.
Classrooms have also been redesigned to ensure that physical distancing will be followed while schools will also put up visual cues in implementing health protocols.
Participating schools must set up proper sanitation and hygiene facilities, and provide face masks to learners and school personnel.
Schools must ensure proper ventilation of classrooms, and conduct temperature checks before entering campuses and daily rapid health checks.
The schools must set up clinics in case of health emergencies.
Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said it was not recommended for participating students and school personnel to undergo regular COVID-19 testing.
"What we're going to do would be to [test] based on the risk-based protocols of the Department of Health," Vergeire said.
"Whenever there would be those children or even teachers and non-teaching personnel having symptoms, that's the time that we'll do isolation and we'll do testing."
Vergeire added that the DOH and DepEd are crafting separate guidelines for contingency plans in case a student or school personnel tests positive for COVID-19.
Participating schools are tasked to set up a "COVID-19 local hotline or help desk" to coordinate with LGUs and hospitals.
The DepEd has yet to say when it will release the final list of participating schools or when the classroom sessions will start.
Education Undersecretary Nepomuceno Malaluan said there would be a "period of orientation" once the participating schools are identified.
The DepEd has reserved a budget for schools that will participate in the pilot study, said Undersecretary Annalyn Sevilla.
The pilot study will run for 2 months, after which the government will assess if more schools can hold limited in-person classes.
Philippine schools have been closed since March 2020 due to the threat of COVID-19.