November 3, 2022
MANILA — Two government agencies differed on the optional face mask policy as 28.8 million students resumed in-person classes in public schools nationwide.
The Department of Health (DOH) distanced itself from the policy set by the Department of Education (DepEd) that made the wearing of face masks voluntary inside classrooms.
“The DOH defers policy decisions to the DepEd with regard to the well-being and safety of its students,” the agency said in a statement when sought for comment about the new DepEd order.
“Should they pursue this, the optional use of face masks in schools is aligned with the Office of the President’s Executive Order No. 3 and 7 which allows the optional use of face masks both indoors and outdoors for certain health settings,” the DOH added.
DepEd spokesperson Michael Poa told reporters on Tuesday that the agency would issue an amendatory department order to formalize the new policy.
Meanwhile, Poa reported on Wednesday said the nationwide return to in-person classes was orderly, with 94 percent of 827 public schools in Metro Manila holding five-day face-to-face sessions per week.
“We are still waiting for feedback from our regional directors so that we can address any challenges they might have encountered,” he said.
The DOH stressed the need for “proper assessment of when to wear or not wear masks” to ensure a stronger wall of immunity and prevent further virus transmission, especially in crowded settings such as classrooms.
It said students and school personnel should take note of other “layers of protection,” such as sanitation, physical distancing, vaccination, and good ventilation.
On Oct. 28, the President issued EO No. 7 ahead of the mass gatherings in the long weekend and the return of public school classes despite misgivings from health experts. This follows EO No. 3 issued on Sept. 28 that first allowed the voluntary wearing of masks outdoors.
The DOH has yet to respond to queries on whether DepEd’s move would merit a recommendation to give the first booster shot to children aged 5 to 11 years old.
DOH data as of Oct. 24 showed that less than half of the target population in that age group — or only 5.2 million — had been fully vaccinated. Only 11.5 percent of the eligible teens aged 12 to 17 have received their first booster dose.
Questioning the new DepEd policy, the Alliance of Concerned Teachers said face masks would still be the students’ last line of defense since most classrooms in public schools remain overcrowded and poorly ventilated, and lacking in-house nurses and functional clinics.
“It is very irresponsible for the government to leave our schools in such a state, and even more thoughtless to strip our students and teachers of the last protection that we have, however insufficient it is,” the teachers’ group said.
Benjo Basas, national chair of Teachers’ Dignity Coalition, echoed the same sentiment, saying that the situation in schools is different from other indoor environments because of the congested and not well-ventilated classrooms.
“Personally, I would advise my students to still wear their face masks since that is their only protection. There are no available water and sanitation facilities, impossible physical distancing so they should just wear their masks inside the room,” he said.
According to the DOH data tracker, the country logged on Tuesday its lowest daily of Covid-19 case tally in more than four months, with 676 new infections recorded.
The number was the lowest since June 28, when there were 576 single-day infections recorded nationwide. Active infections, or the number of people currently ill with COVID-19, fell below the 20,000 mark after more than three months.
Total cases in the country were pegged at 4,005,157, while the death toll reached 64,109.
However, Dr. Tony Leachon, a former public health adviser to the government, said that the declining numbers may be due to “underreporting” since the results of rapid antigen tests were not included in the official tally.
Leachon said infections may jump to as much as 10,000 by the middle of this month or next month.
The DOH said it was expecting a much higher number of cases — up to 18,000 — if the public would become complacent and ignore minimum health protocols.