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Barrier-free

I’ve been keenly scouring the news on how schools are preparing and implementing face-to-face classes. From initial pictures that seemed worrisome (with students inside plastic boxes monitored by armed personnel), the more recent pictures bear a better resemblance to the classroom environments prior to the pandemic. In particular, the City of Makati’s Comembo Elementary School announced that they were using air purifiers and UVC lights to disinfect their classrooms and doing away with plastic barriers. They also installed automatic thermal scanners at the entrance. I will not be talking about the efficacy of such technology to keep our children safe from COVID-19; I will leave that to scientists and engineers who know better. As a professional who values children’s development, however, this is such welcome news.

How we define the problem determines how we solve them. Let’s take the problem of traffic as an example. Most of our rules on traffic have assumed that the problem is that we have too many cars. As such, we have number coding and lane restrictions. I argue that the problem isn’t that we have too many cars; it’s that we have to get to work on time. People restricted from using their cars still have to go to work; and so those with means buy an alternate car, which actually increases the number of cars, while others join the lines for public transport—which has not increased or improved—thereby greatly increasing the wait times and crowding during rush hour. This not only maintains the problem of traffic, but also widens inequality. If we define the problem as “how can people get to work on time?” then the solution rests on improving public transport. We want a solution where people no longer need cars to get to work. We want to develop public transport that is not dependent on road traffic, so that its travel time is consistent and reliable. How we define the problem matters.

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The way rules have been formulated around children (and adults) in this pandemic has centered on how to keep them COVID-free. If our singular goal is to keep infection and spread as close to zero as possible, then rules that restrict and quarantine seem like the logical solution. We’ve closed schools for more than a year following this logic. We’ve kept peer interaction at a minimum in service of safety. We’ve sacrificed people’s mental health and quality of education for this purpose. However, I would argue for another way to define the problem: instead, how can people live their fullest lives in a time of pandemic? How can we optimize children’s development in this environment? If people’s wellbeing is our focus, then we might just begin to see different solutions. We wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss their concerns about motivation and loss of fun. We wouldn’t be so uncaring about people’s concerns about how their livelihoods are affected. We wouldn’t be so quick to assume that loss of relationships and social connection has no lasting adverse consequences.

Both Makati and Pasig City are showing us what solutions are possible when we prioritize children’s wellbeing along with safety. By recognizing what truly is conducive to learning and growth — a welcoming, engaging environment — they have learned to make the environment adjust to the child instead of the other way around. By investing in technology, in Makati’s case, or by prioritizing ventilation, as in Pasig’s example, they have created a less confining classroom while also using scientific methods to keep safe. They are pursuing the problem of how to minimize the pandemic’s effect on children’s school life and not the problem of how to make sure that schools conform to pandemic policies.

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As an additional demonstration of this concept, in contrast to barring children from public spaces, Pasig City has opted to create more safe public spaces for children and their families by opening up Emerald Avenue to pedestrians and leisure activities on Sundays as a safer alternative from indoor establishments. If we recognize the problem as “how can children play safely,” we increase and open up outdoor public spaces rather than close down parks.

How do we know if we’ve identified the right problem? Certainly not by pointing to people as the problem. If we think of people as barriers to our goals, then we are likely to come up with solutions that hurt them. Instead, we need to help people pursue their goals and remove barriers that get in the way.

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TAGS: Anna Cristina Tuazon, children's wellbeing, COVID-19 pandemic, Safe Space
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