MANILA, Philippines — A total of 28 public schools across Metro Manila will welcome more than 2,000 students in their classrooms today, almost two years after the COVID-19 pandemic forced education institutions to adopt distance learning.
A hundred public schools in the provinces and 20 private schools from different regions started the pilot run of limited in-person classes in early November, making the Philippines the last country in the world to do so.
On Dec. 2, the Department of Education (DepEd) announced that 177 additional schools were set to join the pilot study today, 28 of them from the National Capital Region.
Medina Laurino, aunt of a Grade 3 student from Andres Bonifacio Elementary School (ABES) in Caloocan City, one of the schools selected to take part in the pilot phase, said she felt both excited and fearful.
“Of course we can’t help but worry about her safety since the pandemic is not yet over … but if we would not try [to participate in the limited in-person classes] then nothing will happen,” she told the Inquirer on Sunday.
During the distance learning setup, Laurino said her niece, Mizpah Jaaziel Laurino, was capable of studying on her own, although she sometimes asked for help from her mother when she found the lesson difficult to understand.
“I was happy upon learning that ABES was among those chosen by the DepEd to join the pilot study because my niece learns better in a face-to-face setup,” she said. In preparation for Mizpah’s return to school, her family prepared a health and safety kit.
Laurino said she consistently reminded the 9-year-old girl to refrain from borrowing stuff from her classmates because she has her own school supplies.
“If she will cough, we told her to still cover her mouth even if she is already wearing a face mask. We also tell her to be mindful of social distancing, and in return, remind those who will approach her to not forget it,” Laurino said.
“I’m very excited and happy because I will see my classmates again,” Mizpah said.
On Dec. 2, Comembo Elementary School in Makati City already conducted a dry run for the in-person classes of 72 students.
Instead of plastic barriers, the school set up ultraviolet-C lights and air purifiers inside the classrooms to ensure proper ventilation.
Pasig Elementary School also dropped the installation of acrylic barriers, as shown in the photos posted by Pasig Mayor Vico Sotto on Twitter last November.
“Just like what many experts say, the key is good ventilation and air flow,” he said in his post.
Senior high school students from Sen. Renato “Compañero” Cayetano Memorial Science and Technology High School and elementary learners from Ricardo P. Cruz Sr. Elementary School both in Taguig City are also slated to join the pilot run.
A free transport vehicle will be available for the senior high school students during the pilot implementation and both schools will follow the Tipflex program, or Taguig In-Person Flexible Learning, that combines face-to-face and online classes to ensure that no student would be left behind.
During a press briefing last month, Education Secretary Leonor Briones said the first week of classes in the initial 100 pilot schools was “fairly successful” despite some challenges.
Malcolm Garma, DepEd assistant secretary for field operations, said some challenges in ensuring safe school operations included the insufficient budget for health essentials, tendency of learners to remove their masks and forgetting physical distancing.
“They sometimes forget the protocol but they just need to get used to health standards and the new normal [in] education,” he said.
Some schools also encountered difficulties in coordinating with the community, partners and authorities. The unstable or absence of internet connection also resulted in delays in communication with the parents.
Some parents were not able to understand that only a limited number of learners were allowed in the school and that there were prescribed sessions in the pilot in-person classes.
Despite these, some were “grateful” and “happy” for the implementation of the in-person classes.
“By far, the school has received the most appropriate and sufficient amount of support from its stakeholders relative to the conduct of the pilot implementation,” one of the comments said.
The road to resuming in-person classes started last September when President Duterte approved a two-month pilot testing for elementary and high school students in areas with low risk for COVID-19.
In November, the DepEd resumed in-person classes involving students in kindergarten, Grades 1 to 3 and senior high school in schools selected by the DepEd based on their capability to carry out physical classes and contingency plans in case of a COVID-19 infection.
Aside from being in areas with a low risk of COVID-19, the schools also underwent a safety assessment and validation, and secured permission from local governments and the parents of students.
These requirements were part of the guidelines under the joint memorandum circular of the DepEd and the Department of Health.
In-person classes resumed in public schools on Nov. 15 and in private schools on Nov. 22.
For public schools, according to the latest data from the DepEd’s field operations unit, 10 schools each from the regions of Ilocos, Central Luzon, Eastern Visayas and Northern Mindanao participated in the dry run.
Calabarzon (Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal and Quezon) and Soccsksargen (South Cotabato, Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, Sarangani and General Santos) each have five schools selected to join; Bicol, nine; Central Visayas, Zamboanga Peninsula and Davao, eight; Western Visayas, three, and Caraga, 14.
In Pangasinan, Longos Elementary School accommodated 80 learners from Kindergarten to Grade 3 and four teachers, who have been vaccinated in the pilot run of classes.
In-person classes are presently limited to three hours for kindergarten and four hours for students in higher levels.
Briones has already instructed all schools nationwide to start administering the school safety assessment and prepare for in-person classes in the “expanded phase” possibly early next year. The expanded phase will not be limited to specific grade levels, unlike the ongoing pilot implementation.