1,114 schools eyed for dry run of classes

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    Education Secretary Leonor Briones joins the meeting with members of the IATF and the President. (ACE MORANDANTE/ PRESIDENTIAL PHOTO)

    EDUCATION Secretary Leonor Briones yesterday said 1,114 schools located in coronavirus disease (COVID-19) low risk areas are being eyed to join the dry run of face-to-face classes from January 11 to 23 next year.

    Briones, during the Laging Handa public briefing, said DepEd regional directors chose the 1,114 schools out of some 61,000 public schools nationwide, adding most of the schools are situated in Region IV-A (Calabarzon) and Region VIII (Eastern Visayas).

    Briones said the list was being finalized during the meeting of the department’s executive committee yesterday afternoon, adding this may be trimmed down.

    She said the schools were chosen based on their compliance with health protocols against the spread of COVID-19, and the consent of parents and the local government units concerned, among others.

    President Duterte and the Cabinet on Monday night approved a recommendation by the DepEd to conduct face-to-face classes in select schools from low risk areas. Duterte had previously said that he would not approve face-to-face classes if vaccines are still not available.

    Education Undersecretary Nepomuceno Malaluan said face-to-face classes will be limited to about once to twice a week, with around 15 to 20 students per class to ensure that protocols like social distancing are observed.

    Malaluan added the DepEd Execom is discussing whether participants in the classes, like teachers and school officials, would be required to undergo COVID testing.

    Briones admitted there was mixed reaction to the pilot testing, with some parents backing it due to the difficulties they are facing in assisting their kids in online classes, while some parents are against it due to health and safety concerns.

    Briones said the DepEd opted to conduct dry runs to determine the level of preparedness of the department and other needs to improve and prepare for face-to-face classes.

    Briones also allayed concerns that students, especially the young ones that the government said are the “spreader” of viruses, would be at greater risk of contracting the virus than those who attend online classes from their homes.

    She said a report by the United Nations Children’s Fund showed that students are more likely to contract COVID-19 at home than in school.

    “Sinasabi na lahat ng pag-aaral nagpapakita na ang pinaka-lowest threat ay sa schools.

    Ang malaking posibilidad ay sa homes kasi that is where they spend most of their time and other places (Studies showed that the lowest threat is in the schools. There is a bigger possibility that students will get it at home because that is where they spend most of their time and other places),” she said.

    The UNICEF, in a report, urged governments to prioritize the reopening schools while ensuring its safety following a study covering 191 countries that showed that there is “no association between school status and COVID-19 infection rates in the community.”

    Briones assure parents that minimum health protocols would be observed once the children return to school such as the wearing of face masks and face shields, hand washing and social distancing.

    The education chief said the National Capital Region, Davao, and Cotabato begged off from participating in the dry run due to their quarantine status.

    The Department of Health (DOH) said it will help the (DepEd) establish guidelines to be used in the pilot testing of face-to-face classes next year.

    “The guidelines will be jointly developed by DepEd and DOH. That is the agreement,” Health Secretary Francisco Duque III said in a virtual press briefing.

    He said under the guidelines, pilot tests will be held only in low risk areas and have the approval of local government officials. He said students participating in the program must have parental consent.

    Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said an area is considered low risk “when there is a decrease in the number of cases in the past two weeks. We compare the past 2 weeks with the recent 2 weeks.”

    Sen. Christopher Go, who chairs the committee on health and demography, expressed reservations on the pilot testing, saying face-to-face classes should only be held until vaccines that are proven safe and effective are available to the public.

    “Ako naman po personally, ‘no (safe) vaccine, no face-to-face classes’ pa rin po. Kasi po, pag meron naging positibo diyan na isa, back to square one, back to zero na naman tayo at panibagong contact tracing na naman… Iilang buwan na lang po magsasara na (ang) school year. Antayin na lang sana natin na meron nang safe na vaccine para unti-unti makapag-adjust na tayo sa normal nating pamumuhay (I personally prefer ‘no [safe] vaccines, no face-to-face classes because if one of them [students or teachers] test positive for the virus, we will be back to square one. We will again conduct contact tracing…Anyway, the school year is about to end so it is best if we just wait for the availability of a safe vaccine so we can slowly adjust in going back to our normal lives),” Go said.

    He urged DepEd to study and reconsider its stand, saying the government should protect the health of students and teachers.

    But Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian, Senate basic education committee chair, welcomed the planned resumption of face-to-face classes in select areas, saying it will help address the problems hounding the distance learning system.

    Gatchalian said a lot of concerns have been raised by students, parents, and teachers regarding the distance learning program, among them the lack of access to adequate internet connection, parents or guardians not being able to assist the learners, and self-learning modules destroyed in areas recently hit by typhoons, among others.

    “While we are gradually reopening schools, we should never let our guard down. Health protocols such as the wearing of masks and physical distancing should be strictly observed,” Gatchalian said. – With Noel Talacay, Gerard Naval, and Raymond Africa