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Neda: Return of in-person classes doable in August

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MANILA, Philippines — A partial return to face-to-face classes at the start of the new school year in August is possible if the country sustains its gains in containing the spread of COVID-19 and the vaccination program picks up pace.

The campaign to manage the pandemic called Prevent-Detect-Isolate-Treat-Recover, or PDITR, must now be intensified to enable the country to shift to a more relaxed quarantine classification, with lockdowns confined only to specific areas with high COVID-19 cases, Undersecretary Mercedita Sombilla of the National Economic and Development Authority (Neda) told a forum organized by the World Bank on Thursday.

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“Eventually, less restrictions will allow mobility of children and the elderly, the resumption of physical classes, which we can possibly pilot test by August, and stimulate more economic activities,” Sombilla said.

Socioeconomic Planning Secretary and Neda chief Karl Kendrick Chua early this month renewed his pitch to allow in-person classes starting in areas with the lowest risk from COVID-19.

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Limited effectiveness

The Department of Education (DepEd) planned to allow face-to-face classes in certain areas early this year, but was stopped by President Duterte due to the emergence of more contagious virus variants.

Last month, the World Bank urged the Philippine government to allow in-person classes among pupils whose parents consent, after an additional 1.6 million schoolchildren failed to enroll in 2020 due to the pandemic. Meanwhile, those who enrolled faced many challenges to effective learning under the current distance-learning modalities, particularly students belonging to poor households who lacked internet connection and mobile equipment.

The World Bank said distance learning had limited effectiveness and possibly increased learning poverty—or the share of 10-year-olds who could not read or understand a simple story—last year. In 2019, the prepandemic learning poverty in the country was already a high 69.5 percent.

Sombilla said the nationwide vaccination program was expected to speed up after the government strengthened its collaboration with the private sector to boost vaccine deployment to economic front-liners under the A4 priority group, or those who needed to be physically present in their workplaces.

Easing of restrictions

“This partnership will allow for a faster and wider reach of the vaccines to protect more Filipinos, and enable them to participate more freely in economic and social activities,” Sombilla said.The improving COVID-19 numbers are expected to relax quarantine classifications in many parts of the country.

Metro Manila and four nearby provinces could be placed under general community quarantine (GCQ) without added restrictions in the second half of this month, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said on Thursday.

The National Capital Region (NCR) Plus area, consisting of Metro Manila, Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna and Rizal, is under GCQ with restrictions until June 15.

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Roque said the figures in Metro Manila were “looking good,” with hospital care utilization rate—one of the factors considered when deciding on the quarantine status—at 53 percent.

“Based on the figures, Metro Manila Plus might be looking at deescalation. It might not be to [modified general community quarantine], but it could be to ordinary GCQ,” he said at a press briefing.

Roque said Malacañang was likewise looking at the numbers in areas under the stricter modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ) and that any decision on their quarantine classification would always be data-driven.

Cagayan, Apayao, Benguet, Ifugao, the City of Santiago, Puerto Princesa, Iloilo City, Zamboanga City, Zamboanga Sibugay, Zamboanga del Sur, Zamboanga del Norte, Cagayan de Oro City, Butuan City and Agusan del Sur in Caraga are under MECQ until June 15. Davao City is under MECQ until June 20.

The Department of Health earlier took note of the rising COVID-19 cases in regions outside Metro Manila, especially Mindanao, where coronavirus infections have outpaced those of the NCR.

Population immunity

Countries needed to achieve herd immunity if they are to open up their economies and resume growth. However, global financial giant Deutsche Bank has identified the Philippines as among the Asian countries that needed to ramp up inoculation to reach that public health status sooner.

In a June 9 report titled “A Shorter Time to Immunity,” Deutsche Bank Research chief economist Michael Spencer said that in the region, it was only the Philippines and Thailand where new vaccinations were not on a rising trend possibly due to supply constraints, although these were already being eased.

“The Philippines took delivery of one million doses from China last weekend and another one million doses of various kinds of vaccines are due to arrive by month’s end. Thailand has this week begun administering a domestically produced vaccine,” Spencer noted.

He said 818 million people have received at least their first vaccine dose in Asia and the daily numbers were rising as supplies arrive and the importance of getting vaccinated was driven home by renewed outbreaks.

However, Spencer said the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand and Taiwan were in greatest need of help in getting vaccines delivered if they were to reach the targeted population immunity next year.

He defined population immunity as having 70 percent of the population either inoculated with at least one vaccine dose or had recovered from COVID-19 infection.

Based on Deutsche Bank Research’s projections, only China, Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea could achieve population immunity within this year.

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TAGS: coronavirus lockdown, Department of Education (DepEd), face-to-face classes, in-person classes, Schools
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