MANILA (UPDATE) — Students in the Philippines-occupied Pag-asa Island (Thitu Island) in the West Philippine Sea may soon no longer have to travel to the Palawan mainland to pursue secondary education after the government recently approved the establishment of a high school there.
Undersecretary Nepomuceno Malaluan said the Department of Education (DepEd) approved the conversion of Pag-asa Elementary School into an integrated school that would cater to both elementary and junior high school (JHS) students.
"This means that the school will be offering, in addition to elementary grades, JHS level grades as well, which comes with the necessary resources for that," Malaluan told ABS-CBN News on Tuesday.
Asked if the island would also get a senior high school, Malaluan said, "It can evolve to have one as needed."
The 37-hectare island, which is the seat of Kalayaan municipality and is located 285 nautical miles west of mainland Palawan, had its first and only elementary school in 2012.
Students attending high school have to travel to the mainland or live with relatives there, said island coordinator Dennis Bana.
"Ang nangyayari, naiiwan dito 'yong mga magulang kasi nandito 'yong trabaho. 'Yong mga bata, bumababa [sa mainland] para mag-school," Bana said in a phone interview.
(What happens is the students leave their parents because they work on the island. They go to the mainland for school.)
Bana said the construction of the new school facilities may start next year.
"May budget na. Nag-usap na rin si [Kalayaan] Mayor [Roberto del Mundo] pati DepEd, may memorandum nang pinirmahan," he said.
(There's already a budget. The mayor and DepEd have already talked about it, and signed a memorandum.)
Sen. Panfilo Lacson, a presidential aspirant in next year's elections who recently visited the island, thanked the DepEd for the development.
"Certainly a big step of hope for the young people of Kalayaan," Lacson said in a Twitter post.
Pag-asa Elementary School returned to in-person classes earlier this year since there are no COVID-19 cases on the island and the weak internet connection there cannot support remote learning.
Pag-asa is part of the Spratlys, which is being claimed by several Asian countries including the Philippines and China. It is among nine features in the Kalayaan Islands Group occupied by the Philippines.
There are about 300 people residing there, excluding construction and ice-plant workers sent to the island for brief projects. Personnel of the Philippine Navy, Marines, Air Force, Maritime Police, and the Philippine Coast Guard are also deployed there on a rotational basis, raising the population on the island to around 500 at any given time.