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Duterte: No vaccine, no school opening

MANILA, Philippines — President Rodrigo Duterte said late on Monday that he would not allow students to go back to school until a vaccine for COVID-19 was available, drawing objections from educators and lawmakers who insisted modifications to the learning system could be introduced to prevent a longer disruption of education forced by the new coronavirus pandemic.

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Children are due to return to school toward the end of August after classes for more than 25 million primary and secondary students were shut down in March as the contagion reached the Philippines.

Earlier this month, the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases approved the proposal of the Department of Education (DepEd) to move the opening of classes for basic education to Aug. 24, with the school year ending on April 30, 2021.

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The Commission on Higher Education (CHEd) said colleges and universities that could fully conduct online teaching could reopen anytime, but institutions limited to classroom instruction could not resume classes earlier than Sept. 1.

‘Risk too great’

But in a televised speech late on Monday, the President said the risk was too great, even if it held students back academically.

“Unless I am sure that they are really safe, it’s useless to be talking about opening of classes,” Mr. Duterte said.

“For me, vaccine first. If the vaccine is already there, then it’s OK,” he added. “If no one graduates, then so be it.”

Though researchers have launched an unprecedented global effort to quickly develop a vaccine for COVID-19, the severe respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus, it is not clear when a viable candidate will be proven and distributed on a large scale.

Public school normally runs from June to April in the Philippines, but authorities pushed back the start of the new school year as coronavirus cases rose and a strict lockdown brought most of the nation to a halt.

In order to ease classroom crowding, the DepEd had announced a mix of distance-learning measures, including online classes, would be used for the coming school year.

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But millions of students from impoverished families do not have access to computers at home, which would be key for the viability of online classes.

Adapting to the situation

Nobody faulted Mr. Duterte for putting students’ safety before opening school as stated by law, but Vice President Leni Robredo and several senators urged the government to take steps to ensure that children’s education continued despite the coronavirus crisis.

In a statement issued by her spokesperson Barry Gutierrez, Robredo called for “[i]nclusive and effective systems of at-home schooling.”

Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto said education officials should find the right balance to allow children to continue learning while keeping them safe.

“Even though the President has expressed his views on the issue, this should not stop education [officials] from fine-tuning the ways [that] will allow our young to learn amid the pandemic without making them sick,” Recto said in a statement.

“Let us see to it that even if schools are locked down, education is not placed in quarantine,” he added.

Recto said the country could turn to distance learning, instruction by radio or television, home schooling, online classes and other alternative learning systems. He even suggested “radically reduced class sizes” in parts of the country without coronavirus cases.

“I have high confidence in the ability of the teachers of this land to adapt to [the situation], more so if they are empowered with the right tools to make a learner-centered adjustment,” Recto said.

Postpone school opening

Sen. Risa Hontiveros said the DepEd should postpone the Aug. 24 school opening while the country looked for alternative ways for children to resume learning.

Sen. Sonny Angara said he, too, believed August was too soon to allow school to return. He said the date could be pushed back a few weeks or months, but this would require amending the law.

The law states that the school year should start on the first Monday of June but not later than the last day of August.

But a pending measure in Senate would authorize the President to adjust the academic calendar during calamities and disasters. The bill is undergoing preliminary deliberations.

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said the government’s decision should be based on the welfare and safety of students.

He expressed concern over the option of online learning because many students, especially those from impoverished families, had no access to computers at home. He noted that internet rates in the Philippines are among the highest in Asia but also among the slowest in the region.

“I do not see how virtual classes being proposed by the DepEd can be effectively implemented across all sectors. The poor will be at a disadvantage here,” Drilon said.

Groups representing both public and private educators rejected Mr. Duterte’s stand.

Improve the system

Joseph Noel Estrada, managing director of the Coordinating Council of Private Educational Associations (Cocopea), said an indefinite suspension of education would drain government resources and ultimately impede its efforts to suppress the new coronavirus.

“The parents of 27 million [elementary and high school] students will need to stay at home to care for their children instead of returning to work,” Estrada said. “This means many of them will earn less or even lose their jobs, which will force them to rely on government aid,” he added.

It’s not just students who would be affected, Estrada said. An indefinite suspension of school could lead to mass transfer of teachers and faculty to other sectors that have resumed operations with the loosening of coronavirus restrictions, he said.

The Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT), the largest union of public school teachers, said Mr. Duterte’s statement implied that the government “plans to passively wait for a vaccine instead of exhausting measures to [deal with] the health and socioeconomic crisis.”

The ACT urged the government to use this opportunity to make the country’s education system more resilient by building safer schools, deal with the shortages in teachers and classrooms, and resolve gaps in learning.

Reported by Julie M. Aurelio, Leila B. Salaverria, Jhesset O. Enano, Matthew Reysio-Cruz and AFP

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TAGS: 2020 school opening, coronavirus pandemic, coronavirus Philippines, COVID-19, COVID-19 Vaccine, Rodrigo Duterte
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