Brigada focuses on school sanitation

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The numbers alone indicate the sad state of sanitation facilities in Philippine public schools.

The toilet-pupil ratio is 1:55 in the elementary level and 1:93 in high school, based on statistics from the Department of Education’s Basic Education Information System. And that is literally one toilet—not one room with several cubicles.

The numbers are lower than the global standards set by the World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) of 1:50 for males (if urinals are present) and 1:25 for females, and even lower than the norm set by the Philippine Sanitation Code, which is also 1:50 for boys and 1:30 for girls.

The figures are so much worse in some areas of Mindanao—1:300.

Although the DepEd has managed to reduce the toilet shortage of 135,847 in 2009-2010 to 117,480 in 2011 by adding 60,109 seats in the elementary level and 57,371 in high school, the problem remains acute.

Depressing as they are, the numbers still do not really reflect the horror of the situation. Without janitors and maintenance people to keep the toilets clean and in good working order, there is no telling how many of those physical facilities are actually suitable for use.

No budget for janitor

As Merlie Asprer, operations manager of the DepEd’s Adopt-a-School program, explained, the government agency did not have allocations for the positions of janitors and other maintenance people in its annual budget.

So this year, the nine-year-old Brigada sa Eskwela program, the annual multisectoral initiative to prepare public schools for the opening of a new academic year undertaken simultaneously all over the country, is giving special focus on sanitation, specifically toilets. This is part of the general goal of developing in children simple cleanliness habits that can prevent a host of diseases and health problems that adversely affect academic performance.

At the formal opening of the 2012-2013 Brigada program at Justo Lukban Elementary School in Paco, Manila, Education Secretary Armin Luistro said, “Schools should be safe havens for kids, especially in terms of health. They should not be just learning centers.”

He said Brigada was proof that some problems could be addressed if people did not just criticize but also offered to help. The program drew on the actual involvement, not financial aid, of local governments, international partners, businesses, parents, students, police, military and ordinary citizens, he said.

This year’s campaign, Luistro said, would prioritize the more than 700 “highly congested, critical schools.”

Unicef country representative Tomoo Hozumi said problems like intestinal worms, stomachache and diarrhea were indications of poor sanitation. These problems lead to anemia, stunting and increased absenteeism. They reduced a child’s ability to concentrate and learn, Hozumi added.

While boys are able to cope with the problem better—although they often grow up thinking that urinating against the wall is accepted behavior—girls have trouble dealing with it.

Unsafe for girls

Unicef’s Wash (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) in Schools program pointed out: “The lack of Wash facilities in schools poses problems for girls, who have more need for water and sanitation facilities (than boys). Aside from availability, security and privacy of toilet facilities are a must for girls. Girls also need water and washing materials within the toilet facilities, especially for menstrual management.”

It added that “poor Wash facilities (isolated location of toilets, lack of door locks/window covers/grills, lack of water, soap and trash cans inside/close to toilets) increase security risk and vulnerability of girls.”

Asprer said, through Brigada, they were counting on partners, like the Parents-Teachers Association (PTA), to provide the human resources needed to maintain the toilets, as well as the supplies required to ensure that sanitation practices were strictly observed.

She said the handwashing campaign, for instance, had already resulted in some very practical solutions. Children in schools with no water supply but whose homes have steady and adequate supplies brought water for their handwashing needs.

Some local governments, apprised that the basic hygiene kit of soap, toothbrush and toothpaste cost only P25 per child for one year, assumed the responsibility of providing such to their students.

Jon Michael R. Villaseñor,  Unicef Philippines Wash in Schools officer, said the provinces of Northern Samar and Camarines Norte were just two local governments that had signed memoranda of agreement for this campaign.

Asprer added that parents, realizing how little it would cost them to prevent some major health problems in their children, agreed to pay for the kits after sponsorships by private companies ended.

With prefabrication an option, she said the DepEd was building toilets with several cubicles to allow the use of one facility by several students simultaneously. The agency was also  exploring new technologies for toilets that use less or even no water, particularly for areas where supply was a problem.

DepEd action center

Some schools had set up rain collection facilities so they would have water for flushing toilets and watering plants, she said.

Meanwhile, the DepEd held a command conference with partners in the Oplan Balik Eskwela (OBE) Task Force last Friday to ensure the smooth opening of classes on June 4.

The DepEd will have the OBE Information and Action Center May 28-June 8 at its Bulwagan ng Karunungan  in Pasig City to provide quick information and response to complaints and queries.

The annual  OBE seeks to address problems commonly encountered during school opening and aims to ensure that students are properly enrolled and are able to attend school on the first day of classes.

Members of the task force include the Departments of Public Works and Highways, Trade and Industry, Transportation and Communications, Health , Interior and Local Government, and National Defense; Philippine National Police, Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration, Metropolitan Manila Development Authority, Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System and its concessionaires—Manila Water Company Inc. and Maynilad Water Services Inc.,  Philippine Information Agency, and Manila Electric Co.

Prior to the conference, the DepEd and the OBE partners held the Inter-Agency Convergence Meeting to consolidate efforts for the school opening and to ensure they are sustained throughout the school year.

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