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Groups hit 'deficient' gov’t guidelines on face-to-face school reopening, demand COVID-19 screening

By PINKY S. ICAMEN Published Nov 10, 2021 4:58 pm

A coalition of advocacy groups expressed concerns regarding government guidelines on the limited resumption of face-to-face classes, demanding regular COVID-19 testing for students and teachers a day after the Department of Education said there will be no such requirement.

“The Department of Education and the Commission on Higher Education’s guidelines for school reopening are deficient of key health protection measures that can boost the nation’s confidence and enable the safe resumption of face-to-face classes,” the groups said in a Nov. 10 joint statement.

These organizations include the Alliance of Concerned Teachers, National Union of Students of the Philippines, Agham, Coalition for People’s Right to Health, National Network of Agrarian Reform Advocates-Youth, Amihan, Salinlahi, Gabriela, Katribu Youth, Bagong Alyansang Makabayan, ACT Teachers party-list, Kabataan party-list and Anakpawis party-list.

After over a year of the schools being shut down and shifting to online classes due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a limited number of schools and students will participate in face-to-face classes starting Nov. 15. The pilot run will have 100 public schools, and there will be an additional 20 private schools starting Nov. 22.

The group noted five demands to ensure key health protection measures are in place, namely:

• Weekly COVID-19 antigen testing to screen all learners, teachers, and staff who will participate in in-classroom learning

• Special vaccination program in areas where schools that will participate in the pilot run of face-to-face classes are located

• Retrofitting of classrooms to ensure better ventilation, with each having a minimum of two functional electric fans, and air-conditioned rooms having air filters

• Mass hiring of school nurses

• Medical fund for free treatment of those who will get infected with COVID-19.

The group also called for the national government to release additional funds to finance the following key measures and to “mobilize all available resources to ensure success of the pilot run of face-to-face classes.”

“It (national government) must provide subsidy to local government units and public and private school administrations to enable them to meet the gargantuan tasks that were laid upon their shoulders and not back down on the challenge or pass onto the stakeholders the costs of safely reopening schools,” the group said.

COVID-19 testing 'traumatic' for children

The groups’ statement came after the Department of Education (DepEd) stood firm that it will not recommend COVID-19 testing for students who will participate in the pilot run of the face-to-face classes.

“We really cannot imagine the small children undergoing the swab test. It's very traumatic. Even for us, adults, it's difficult. The answer of DOH is really no,” Education Assistant Secretary Malcom Garma said in a Nov. 9 press briefing. 

He added that instead of subjecting the students to COVID-19 swab or antigen testing, school personnel will rely on symptoms and monitor the condition of those who will attend the pilot run. However, Garma said that face masks are “non negotiable” and must be worn at all times.

In the same briefing, Education Secretary Leonor Briones also stressed that testing would be traumatic. “It’s not the most pleasant experience,” Briones said. “The trauma may be with them for some time.”

According to the pilot face-to-face guidelines, the following grade levels will be allowed to participate:

• Kindergarten — 12 students

• Grades 1 to 3 — 16 students

• Senior High School under technical vocational — 12 students

• Senior High School — 20 students

Blended learning will also be applied in a one-week straight face-to-face, one-week distance learning (alternating) basis.

In an earlier statement, Briones said that the guidelines for the face-to-face classes implement the “prevent, detect, isolate, treat, and reintegrate” framework that highlight the following:

• Importance of availability of water

• Sanitation and hygiene facilities

• Proper ventilation in classrooms

• Ensuring the classroom layouts enable physical distancing between persons

• Prioritization of students who will benefit most from limited face-to-face learning modality

• Management of foot traffic

• Conduct simulation activities before implementation of the pilot 

In October, the Department of Education and the Department of Health said in a statement that they drafted a contingency plan with recommended actions from different scenarios. These scenarios include where there is suspected case presenting symptoms, and where there is resurgence of COVID-19 cases in multiple barangays.

Briones also said the upcoming pilot implementation of face-to-face classes underwent a series of consultations with child health experts and other involved stakeholders to ensure a safe return to schools.

On Nov. 10, DepEd also released an infographic of its health and safety protocols for students, teachers, school personnel and parents, a few days before the implementation of the limited face-to-face classes.