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The dilemma of face-to-face classes

One key feature of this pandemic is the extremely difficult choices it has forced governments and people in general to make. Like the challenge of ensuring public safety and health while preventing the collapse of the economy and the loss of livelihood of a great number of people, the resumption of face-to-face classes is another tough dilemma being faced by policymakers.

President Duterte recently rejected a proposal by the Department of Education (DepEd) to resume face-to-face classes while vaccines are not available. This is a sensible approach to take, given that vaccines are key to not only minimizing risks in reopening the economy but also to regaining a semblance of normalcy. However, given that most vaccines currently approved for use around the world under emergency use authorization are not recommended to be administered to children under 16 years old, getting young people back into the classrooms needs serious consideration by the education sector and parents.

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In response to the pandemic in March last year, schools shut down as stringent community quarantine or lockdown was put in place by the government. As the restrictions started to slowly ease up from enhanced to general community quarantine in various parts of the country in the latter part of 2020, schools adapted and started implementing online and/or distance learning. The results of that experience have not been encouraging so far, and certain issues continue to be highlighted, particularly the inequities faced by marginalized and vulnerable segments of society who have fewer resources to make full use of alternative modes of learning.

Unicef Philippines has also voiced out the negative effects of school closures among children, such as learning loss, high dropout rates, and mental health and socio-emotional issues. A World Bank study on the impact of COVID-19 on Philippine households cited by the UN body found that only 20 percent of school-aged children were engaged in learning activities while adhering to community quarantine guidelines.

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There is no question that something needs to be done about the education of children during this pandemic. This is a dilemma that many governments and families are grappling with around the world. School closures are taking a toll on the education of the young, and online and distance learning modes are proving to be not that effective. At most, these are stop-gap or complementary measures, because being in school learning and socializing with their peers is a crucial part of children’s education and growth as human beings.

But, just as the need to resume classes is crucial to the education and well-being of children, the question of health and safety is as important. Data from the World Health Organization suggest that children under the age of 18 make up 8.5 percent of reported cases with relatively few deaths from COVID-19, compared to other age groups. This group generally experiences mild disease at most. However, there are reports of critical illness among children with preexisting conditions. The risk of infection for children exists, so this is a gamble every parent will have to weigh. And that is apart from the health and well-being of teachers, which should have a preeminent place as well in the consideration of policymakers wrestling with options for pandemic-era education.

Perhaps it’s just best to consider the 2020-2021 school year as a lost year. Perhaps the national government should just ride out what’s left of the school year and decentralize the process. Let the provincial units of the DepEd, for instance, work with local government units in adopting approaches suitable to the health situation in their areas in terms of closing out the school year. In the meantime, the education department, with other relevant agencies, can start focusing on and preparing for the coming 2021-2022 school year. Learn from the experiences and lessons of this lost year, so that necessary measures and policies can be implemented to ensure that children are able to resume their education in a safe environment.

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Moira G. Gallaga served three Philippine presidents as presidential protocol officer.

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TAGS: DepEd, Duterte, education, face-to-face classes, health crisis, pandemic
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