MANILA — The Philippines is set to begin on Monday a pilot run of limited in-person classes in select public schools, the first time that basic education institutions will hold classroom sessions after nearly two years of closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pilot implementation will take place in 100 schools selected by the Department of Education (DepEd) and Department of Health (DOH), mostly from far-flung areas in the provinces deemed “low risk” to COVID-19.
DepEd Planning Service Director Roger Masapol has said the resumption of in-person classes does not signal a return to how schooling was conducted prior to the health crisis.
The in-person or face-to-face classes will only complement distance learning modalities, with classroom sessions set to be held every other week.
“Hindi po siya full face-to-face, 'yong pagbabalik nila (students). Ang recommended ng DOH is one week [of] face-to-face, one week off sa school. So pupuwede siyang alternating,” he said in a recent Teleradyo interview.
So far, only students from Kindergarten to Grade 3 and senior high school will attend physical classes, which will also see reduced class sizes. Schools have also retrofitted their facilities to implement health protocols and avoid the possible spread of COVID-19.
In Tamulaya Elementary School in Quezon province’s Polillo Island, school officials enforced distancing between students' chairs and installed plastic barriers around each of them.
Schools in Zambales, meanwhile, installed triages, and handwashing and isolation facilities.
Some of the participating schools also conducted simulation of physical classes and oriented students to ensure that they follow health protocols.
Only vaccinated school personnel can join the pilot run while students are required to wear face masks on campus at all times, according to officials.
Education Secretary Leonor Briones earlier instructed participating schools to prepare contingency plans in case of a COVID-19 outbreak.
Schools will follow the usual DOH protocol on isolation and contact tracing once any participant exhibits COVID-19 symptoms or gets infected, said Education Assistant Secretary Malcolm Garma.
Initially, President Rodrigo Duterte approved only 120 schools for the pilot implementation, with 20 private schools set to begin their in-person classes on Nov. 22.
But on Friday, the DepEd announced that Duterte has allowed more schools to be included in the pilot. The additional schools will be named once they secure clearance from the education and health departments.
CALLS FOR TESTING, SPECIAL VACCINATION
Still, some groups remain unsatisfied with the preparations and guidelines for the program.
Last week, they issued a “unity statement” which called on both the DepEd and Commission on Higher Education to hold weekly COVID-19 testing for everyone attending limited in-person classes and a special vaccination program in areas where the schools are located, among other demands.
The statement was signed by groups such as the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT), National Union of Students of the Philippines, Coalition for People's Rights to Health, Salinlahi Alliance for Children's Concerns and Kabataan Party-list, among others.
“Tiyakin natin na ligtas ang pagbabalik-paaralan. Alam ko ang mga kapuwa ko guro ay handang-handa at sana ang ating national government ay mabigyan ito ng sapat na pondo,” Kris Navales of ACT told TeleRadyo on Sunday.
(Let’s make sure that the return to school is safe. I know that my fellow teachers are prepared and I hope that the national government will provide sufficient funding for this.)
Education Undersecretary Annalyn Sevilla has said each participating school has received an additional funding of P100,000.
The pilot run is the first in the government's three-phased plan to restart in-person classes even as the country continued to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic. The Philippines is one of the last two countries in the world to reopen schools since the health crisis began, the other being Venezuela.
The DepEd pushed for limited in-person classes as it acknowledged the limitations of remote learning, such as teachers’ and students’ difficulty in accessing gadgets and stable internet connection.
Based on the DepEd’s timeline, the pilot study will end on January 31. The expansion phase, under which more schools or grade levels will be allowed to hold in-person classes, is scheduled to start on March 7.