Reopening schools

DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star) - March 5, 2021 - 12:00am

It is wrong for our government to have a one-size-fits-all approach when making policy responses to COVID. There are nuances in our situation which the IATF and President Duterte must consider.

Take the issue of reopening of schools. Even without the vaccines, there are many areas in the country that can safely reopen with proper safeguards. The Batanes group of islands is a good example as I have been pointing out for months now.

The province of Batanes has been practically COVID-free from the start, thanks to the vigilance of its local leaders. They had their first case just a few months ago when a resident returned from Manila. It did not result in a community infection.

Face-to-face classes should have been allowed in Batanes a year ago. The danger of community infection was practically nil, and the province is one of the worst places in the country for broadband quality, making online classes impossible.

I was in Batanes just a few weeks before the lockdown and I experienced how bad their broadband service is. Yet, there should have been no problems conducting classes in the open air or under shady trees. The steady breeze and plenty of sunshine make it COVID-safe. As it happened, the children of Batanes lost one year of education.

We are not like Singapore or Taiwan where uniform COVID policies can work. We are bigger in land area and population, and rather spread out.

There are many provinces and islands that are probably like Batanes that didn’t have much, if any, COVID cases. These areas should have been treated differently by Imperial Manila, now ruled by imperialists from Davao.

The last report I read indicated that as of now, only NCR and Region 7 are still problematic. The rest of the country is at the lowest quarantine level and seems to be normalizing as fast as Imperial Manila would let them.

To be fair to DepEd Secretary Leonor Briones, she has been raring to pilot test in-person classes where it is possible. DepEd plans to have 1,500 test sites. Perhaps if they reduced the number and excluded NCR, Duterte will allow them.

Going back to the classroom is also a big debate in the US. My daughter, who teaches in the primary grades in Southern California, was telling me that the current system of online teaching is difficult for teachers and for pupils.

She observed that the pupils from more privileged families who can afford the best gadgets and broadband connections for online learning are not missing a beat. They are also the pupils whose parents are educated enough to be able to help them do their schoolwork.

Those from poorer families don’t have proper broadband connections even if the school provides the laptops. Their non-English speaking parents or grandparents can’t help them. They are also missing the nutritious meals that their schools provide them.

I suspect the same thing is happening here. The majority of our public school pupils are from families who live from hand-to-mouth and may have even lost jobs during the lockdown. Online education is the last of their daily concerns.

Can schools be re-opened safely?

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released guidelines for reopening schools that focus on five key COVID-19 mitigation strategies: the universal and correct wearing of masks; physical distancing; washing hands; cleaning facilities and improving ventilation; and contact tracing, isolation and quarantine.

Vaccines and testing are not among the “key” strategies the agency laid out, calling them “additional layers” of COVID-19 prevention.

The CDC guidelines also recommend virtual learning for middle schools and high schools, and hybrid learning or reduced attendance for elementary schools in what the CDC calls high transmission zones or “red” zones.

The preponderance of evidence suggested that schools could be safe for reopening, provided mitigation measures were in place, according to the CDC.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) also urged schools to open, citing the long-term risks — academic and emotional — to students if schools stay closed.

According to the pediatricians in AAP, “The lower risk of transmission of the virus by younger children and reported milder or moderate illness in this age group suggest the appropriateness of in-person instruction for primary and elementary grades.”

Sen. Ralph Recto is right to urge DepEd to do trial runs of safe face-to-face classes in COVID-free areas.

“For example, begin with 10 students in a room that is well ventilated. Tapos, mask lahat. Constant handwashing. Temperature check. And instead of the whole day in school, cut it to half and limit it to two to three times a week. Teachers with medical clearance. Kumpleto ang safeguards…”

Recto said these “closely monitored trial classes” could be held in COVID-free areas, possibly in remote barangays or self-contained communities which have not recorded a single case of COVID-19 in months.

“One third ng mga towns, walang COVID case. Yung mga schools sa maliliit na isla na hindi labas-pasok ang mga tao, hindi ba pwede simulan doon? Ito yung tinatawag nila na granular and customized approach. Because a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work,” Recto said.

Recto is concerned about the long-term impact of distance learning on our children who are already behind their ASEAN regional peers even before COVID.

“Kung 2024 pa ang vaccination matatapos, at last priority ang mga bata… I fear we are creating a lost generation,” Recto said.

He also recalled that “more than a hundred years ago, when the Spanish Flu wreaked havoc on our land, our educators were forced to search for new windows of learning. And they did—literally—by opening windows to facilitate ventilation. They also brought classes outdoors.

“This is the same tack epidemiologists are prescribing today, that in this age of N95s and hazmat suits, one thing that helped then can still help now: fresh, free flow of air.”

It is certainly time to be creative and still be within the bounds of science in assuring safety from COVID. Duterte must have more faith in DepEd to successfully carry this experiment out.

After all, IATF was ready to allow re-opening of cinemas. Re-opening schools is safer and more sensible.



Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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