MANILA: Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s thumbs-up for a limited return to classrooms for students in areas with low numbers of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases has been criticized by worried parents and teachers.
The leader’s approval for the resumption of in-person classes in “low risk” parts of the Philippines on Tuesday drew mixed reactions with some objectors urging the government to reconsider its decision.
The government said on Monday that for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak it would reopen nearly 120 schools as part of a “pilot” project.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque pointed out that the move was necessary because otherwise, “we might lose a generation if we don’t have face-to-face (classes).”
According to a report by the UN children’s agency UNICEF, the Philippines was among 17 countries globally where schools had remained completely shut throughout the pandemic, highlighting what it described as “18 months of lost learning.”
Benjo Basas, national chairperson of the Teachers’ Dignity Coalition, an umbrella organization of public-school teachers’ associations, told Arab News that the Philippines’ decision was “untimely and dangerous” given the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the country, and would only put further pressure on an overwhelmed healthcare system.
He said: “Our government has yet to fix its COVID-19 response, and the more than 20,000 new cases posted almost every day over the past week can attest to that. If in-person classes will push through, it’s like putting people at risk, especially the children.”
On Tuesday, Filipino health authorities reported 16,361 new COVID-19 cases, raising the total number of infections in the country to 2,401,916. Of those, 2,193,700 (91.3 percent) people had recovered, while 37,074 (1.54 percent) had died.
Basas pointed out that any resumption of face-to-face classes should be carefully planned, and the Department of Education must guarantee the safety of all participants before questioning who would be held accountable if someone gets infected at school.
“While we agree that there is no better alternative to face-to-face learning, the current pandemic situation does not allow for this. Education can be delayed. What is more important at the moment, is the lives and health of everyone,” he added.
During a press conference, Education Secretary Leonor Briones said the pilot scheme would cover 100 public schools and 20 private institutions, limiting class sizes to 12 learners in kindergarten, 16 in grades one to three, and 20 at senior high school level.
Meanwhile, the classes would be limited to three- to four-hour sessions based on “consent from parents and guardians. If there are changes in the risk assessment, then we will stop it,” she added.
As per guidelines released on Monday, public schools would need to pass a “readiness assessment” before reopening while private schools would be subject to a joint validation by the departments of education and health.
The guidance said: “We reiterate our demand for a science-based and evidence-based risk assessment for all participating schools. These shall help determine their present condition and urgent needs for the safe conduct of in-classroom learning, which the government shall immediately address.”
Some parents, however, have said they would refuse to allow their children to become part of an “experiment.”
Lee Reyes, 36, who has three children in grade school, told Arab News she would never risk the health and safety of her sons and daughter.
“For what reason? (To protect them from) COVID-19? If some adults, despite being vaccinated, still get infected, what about unvaccinated children? Also, kids are kids. Grown-ups tend to forget social distancing, and some even take off their masks. So, no. I would rather spend time helping my children learn their lessons from home,” she said.
Another mother, Lei, 50, also voiced concerns over the safety of her children, one at college and vaccinated, and the other in junior high school and unjabbed.
She said: “If my eldest child has to commute every day, there is a risk. Or even if I let her stay at the dorm. Although I know I need to teach her to be independent, now is not the best time during a pandemic and the flu season.”
In a Facebook post, parent Bella Mel, said: “Better safe than sorry. Because if our children get sick, it will only be them who will suffer. And there’s no Department of Education to help shoulder the hospital bills. So why push for it? Let’s just accept this is the new normal.”