MANILA — Health and education advocates on Wednesday called on government to hold regular COVID-19 testing for those joining the pilot run of in-person classes, a recommendation that had already been rejected by officials.
Dr. Joshua San Pedro, co-convener of the Coalition for People's Right to Health, said testing was necessary to ensure that students and personnel would not spread COVID-19 in schools.
"Mas traumatic, 'di hamak, ang magkasakit sa COVID-19 o kaya mamatay sa nakahahawang sakit na puwede naman sanang maiwasan," he said in an online briefing, reacting to a statement made on Tuesday by Education Assistant Secretary Malcom Garma.
(It's more traumatic to get COVID-19 or die from an infectious disease that could have been prevented.)
Garma said COVID-19 tests would not be required for students joining the pilot run, arguing that swabbing would be "very traumatic" for children.
He said the Department of Health, which is working with the Department of Education on the pilot run, did not recommend virus testing as well.
But San Pedro said there are other ways to test students and school personnel for COVID-19, such as rapid antigen or saliva tests.
He also argued that it was not enough to test participants of the pilot run only when they show COVID-19 symptoms, as Garma suggested.
"By then, 'pag nalaman na natin na mayroon silang sintomas, ay nakalat na [ang virus]. Marami nang ibang nahawa dahil sa incubation period," he said.
(By then, when you realize that you have symptoms, you've already spread the virus. You've already infected many others because of the incubation period.)
Testing can be done every week and in a "staggered" manner where only a number of students from each class is tested per day, San Pedro said.
"So puwedeng i-alter ito depende sa pangangailangan, kakayahan at depende sa bilang ng mga klase o mag-aaral na kailangang gawan ng testing," he said.
(This testing process can be altered depending on the need, capability, and depending on the number of classes or students that need to undergo testing.)
The National Union of Students of the Philippines and Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT) supported the call for regular COVID-19 testing in schools.
"Mae-expose tayo, hindi lang sa mga estudyante kundi sa mga magulang. Talagang napaka-vulnerable namin sa panahon ngayon," said ACT representative Kris Navales in the same briefing.
(Teachers will be exposed not only to students but also parents. We are very vulnerable in this time.)
Navales, a public school teacher from Quezon City, also stressed on the need to hire more school nurses as some schools only have "clinic teachers."
Professional health workers in schools can guide teachers in case of COVID-19 outbreaks, said Navales.
He also called on the government to provide support to school personnel that would get infected with COVID-19 during the pilot run.
The groups also urged government to hold a "special COVID-19 vaccination" in the communities where the pilot schools are located.
While the pilot schools come from areas deemed "low risk" to COVID-19 due to few cases, people from those communities should still be protected from the virus through vaccines, San Pedro said.
"Hindi sila magiging tunay na low risk kung wala naman talagang pagbabakuna na nangyayari," he said.
(Those areas won't really be low risk unless there's actual vaccination happening there.)
The pilot run of limited in-person classes is scheduled to start on Nov. 15 in 100 public schools and on Nov. 22 in 20 private schools.
It marks the return of Philippine basic education schools to classroom instruction after nearly 2 years of closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Education Secretary Leonor Briones earlier asked participating schools to prepare contingency plans in case of COVID-19 infections during the pilot run.
Earlier this year, higher education institutions have been allowed to hold limited in-person classes but only for select programs.