August 22, 2022
MANILA, Philippines —— Two days before the Aug. 22 reopening of public schools nationwide, Grade 6 teacher Julieta Golez spent around five hours rearranging the 43 chairs in her classroom as she tried to figure out how to seat her students at least one meter apart.
Even though it was a Saturday, she had been at Lucas R. Pascual Elementary School in Quezon City since 6:30 a.m. to make sure that everything would be ready for the full implementation of face-to-face classes starting Monday.
Golez said she and the other teachers were also anticipating an influx of additional students since it would be the last day of enrollment.
But she was worried about fitting more people into her already crowded classroom while maintaining physical distancing.
Based on the latest data from the Department of Education (DepEd), more than 27.69 million students have so far enrolled for this school year — still short of its 28.6 million target.
But as far as DepEd is concerned, it’s “all systems go” for the return to physical classes, more than two years after schools nationwide were forced to close and students shifted to online learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yet, on the ground, teachers continue to be hounded by the usual problems of classroom shortage and inadequate supplies of armchairs and learning materials, in addition to the supposed lack of safety protocols for holding in-person classes.
The Philippines was among the three countries in the world — together with Bangladesh and Panama — that kept schools closed the longest, according to the September 2021 report of the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (Unicef).
Unicef Executive Director Henrietta Fore pointed out that millions of students around the world have been affected by school closures and the learning losses incurred from not being in school “may never be recovered.”
Benjo Basas, chair of the Teachers’ Dignity Coalition, criticized what he called DepEd’s “unbelievable” assessment last week that 90 percent of public schools all over the country were ready to conduct face-to-face classes despite the “decades-old” classroom shortage problem.
“In parts of the country, classrooms are still being halved to accommodate more classes. Covered courts are still being converted to makeshift classrooms,” Basas said in a statement on Sunday.
But DepEd spokesperson Michael Poa has since clarified that only 46 percent or 24,175 public and private schools nationwide would hold in-person classes five days a week starting on Aug. 22.
At least 51.8 percent or 29,271 schools would implement the blended learning modality, with face-to-face classes to be conducted at least three days a week and online learning for the remaining two days.
By Nov. 2, however, all schools nationwide are expected to shift to full in-person classes.
Lizamarie Olegario, an education professor at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City, said that during a focus group discussion with teachers, one of them pointed out that full implementation of physical classes would mean returning to teaching in packed classrooms.
“So how will the quality of learning be under a pandemic when we are facing the same problems that are yet to be resolved?” Olegario said in a webinar organized by the Movement for Safe, Equitable, Quality, and Relevant Education in July.
Under DepEd Order No. 34, series of 2022, Vice President and Education Secretary Sara Duterte did not place a limit on class size or the number of students allowed to attend physical classes, saying the situation was different for every school.
Packed like sardines
She told reporters that the department was working on a policy that would streamline the process of building classrooms to address congestion and overcrowding.
Asked about this, Poa said that the alternative and short-term strategy, for now, would be to hold classes in shifts.
“As much as possible, [schools] should not exceed double shifts but there are some that really need to implement three shifts so that, somehow, the learners would not be packed like sardines (inside the classroom),” he told the Inquirer on Friday.
Not without challenges
Poa gave an assurance that during the transition period to full in-person classes between now and Nov. 2, DepEd would look into “high resource gaps,” whether in infrastructure and learning materials.
“We also ask for help to let us know immediately if there are situations of overcrowding so that we can coordinate immediately and implement solutions,” he said, as he acknowledged that the opening of classes “[would] not be without challenges.”
For Olegario, aside from overcrowding in classrooms, the lack of a checklist of requirements for the safe reopening of schools, plus low vaccination rates were also among the concerns in the return to full face-to-face classes.
During the conduct of limited in-person classes last year, participating schools first had to be evaluated using the “School Safety Assessment Tool” (SSAT) which listed stringent health protocols and strategies to manage COVID-19.
While the SSAT was not adopted by the new DepEd administration, Poa said the regional directors conducted a mapping of schools to determine the resource gaps.
“Some schools would inevitably lack facilities and [this] prompted the DepEd to release an additional P3.7 billion for maintenance and other operating expenses,” he said, adding that the fund was released more than a week ago.
For Basas, more problems await him and other teachers, including “the bloated curriculum worsened by inadequate learning materials.”
He said that they also continue to be overburdened by redundant clerical work while the previous administration failed to deliver on its promise of hiring additional teachers and non-teaching personnel.
But despite the “grim situation” in the education sector, he said they were “gearing up to report physically starting Monday and make do, fingers crossed.”
“[We] are calling on parents and learners for understanding as [we] voice out [our] protest, born out of legitimate fear of what in-person learning could still bring [us] and [our] families,” Basas said.