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Philippines: Beginning of new school year should be tied to appropriate health measures

Education unionists in the Philippines have reiterated the need to ensure safety from COVID-19 in all classrooms for teachers and students before opening education establishments for a new school year.

The Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT) in the Philippines has said that the government needs to devise “concrete measures” to prevent the spread of COVID-19 once classes start.

The union has issued a call for clarity in response to the announcement that the new school year will be pushed back until August. Leonor Briones, the secretary of the Department of Education, said this move was in response to the dangers tied to the COVID-19 pandemic and in line with legislation requiring the school year to start not later than August.

Briones also said that public schools could also offer Saturday classes for students working from home rather than physically participating  in classes so that the school year could end , by the end of March 2021, while complying with the number of student-learning days required by law.

Prevention measures

“Talks on resuming classes are welcomed, but more than the ‘when’, there is a clear need for the government to deal with the ‘how’ and come up with concrete measures to further prevent COVID-19 spreading should classes start, while ensuring everyone’s access to quality education,” stressed ACT Secretary General Raymond Basilio.

He went on to explain that “the union has emphasised the need to, first and foremost, establish preventive measures —the extent of which will determine when classes may resume. It aims to guarantee that the welfare of students and education employees are ensured during the pandemic, as they attempt to adapt to the ‘new normal’ and students try to continue their formal education.”

The World Health Organisation has also stressed the need to establish preventive measures in schools and workplaces, as countries are engaging in the gradual easing of lockdowns and a return to socio-economic activities.

Vulnerabilities in the system

The ACT said that the Philippines’ weakened education system – a result of decades of neglect by public authorities – was a major factor that rendered students, teachers, and non-teaching staff vulnerable to the disease. They underlined the persistent problem of overcrowded classrooms, flawed facilities (such as restrooms without water), and the lack of health and support personnel at school level, as being among the issues needing immediate resolution.

“Physical distancing will not be possible in many of our schools, especially in urban areas where one classroom is cut in half to accommodate two classes with 50 students each,” said Basilio. “This remains the case even if the Department of Education has introduced decongestion measures, such as the alternative delivery mode of education or two-to-three shifts of classes.”

He also highlighted that “frequent handwashing will be especially challenging as most of us do not have or have limited access to clean running water at school; and infections will likely go unchecked due to the lack of nurses in schools”.

Technology deficit

“Proposals for distance learning hardly seem viable, as the prerequisite is to have technological infrastructure at both the school level and in the homes of teachers and students”, he added.

“Many of us, including our students, have limited access to the internet,” he said. “Even the laptops we use for work, as required by the Department of Education’s 21st Century learning plan, came from our own pockets. Meanwhile, as students barely have their basic needs covered, there is no way most of them could afford to have their own computers with Wi-Fi connections or to regularly go to internet/computer shops. Not to mention the generally poor internet connections in the country, even in urban areas, while almost non-existent in rural communities.”

The ACT has also highlighted that, even if the government manages to somehow address the infrastructure aspect, distance learning cannot replace classroom learning as the latter provides a more conducive setting for giving students a chance at holistic development.

Recommendations

The union is urging the government to establish the following preventive measures as a prerequisite for reopening schools:

  • Reduce class sizes and use class schedules to make social distancing possible.
  • Hire an adequate number of health and support personnel at school level.
  • Provide the necessary facilities, such as adequate hand-washing resources and sufficient water supply, on all floors of school buildings.
  • Provide the required equipment and internet connections for the conduct of distant learning, wherever necessary.
  • Arrange for school health programmes promoting the prevention of infections and ensuring free treatment for every teacher, employee, and student that may get infected.

Testing, quarantine, support

The ACT further insists that the government adopts a comprehensive approach in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic and in establishing the so-called ‘new normal’, following humanitarian and rights-based principles.

“We call on the government to hasten the systematic mass testing [of people] which will provide us with the baseline data on the concentration and scale of the outbreak, as well as its infection rate,” Basilio said. “It must also set up enough isolation and quarantine facilities with an appropriate number of health care workers who must be paid decent wages. Finally, our government must provide socio-economic as well as infrastructure support to the people, right now and later.”

Education International guidance

Education International supports its Filipino and other affiliates in its endeavours to ensure that teaching and learning can safely happen in classrooms before reopening classes, as laid out in its Guidance to reopening schools and education institutions.