The Omicron-led surge in coronavirus infections has dampened the start of the year and put doubts on the government’s plan to reopen more schools for face-to-face classes. About 100 schools reopened in November last year and more were to follow later this month, but the latest surge in COVID-19 cases — 39,004 as of Saturday — has prompted teachers to appeal for a two-week “health break.”
A survey conducted last Jan. 10 by the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT) Philippines showed that more than half, or 55.4 percent, of teacher-respondents in the National Capital Region have reported experiencing flu-like symptoms. The group has appealed for a break particularly in areas under alert level 3, with ACT secretary general Raymond Basilio noting that “[t]eachers and students alike are struggling to keep holding classes amid this Omicron-driven surge. Either we’re sick or we’re taking care of family members who are. It’s only humane to give all of us a break amid this outbreak if only to allow us to recover.”
ACT explained that the two-week break is possible considering that there are 200 of the 209 class days this school year required for “teaching-learning days,” and that this is even more than the 180-day contact time imposed by the Department of Education (DepEd). “Two weeks of health break would only mean 12 days less, leaving us still with 188 days of contact time. It’s entirely doable and will not sacrifice the youth’s chance at education … Denying it, on the other hand, will have serious effects [on] the quality of teaching and learning,” said ACT-NCR Union president Vladimer Quetua.
In response, the DepEd has suspended classes in NCR public schools from Jan. 15 to 22, and in Calabarzon from Jan. 17 to 29 to ease the burden on the physical and mental well-being of school personnel and learners. This will at least give those who are sick enough time to recuperate and return to school sooner.
Since 2020, the government has been under pressure to reopen schools; the Philippines was the last country to resume face-to-face classes and in the process disrupting the education of at least 27 million students, according to Unicef estimates. This disruption, Unicef said, had negative effects on students’ emotional and cognitive development, and for many, making them more vulnerable to abuse, gender-based violence including sexual exploitation and child marriage, and child labor. The pandemic has also taken its toll on children’s mental health as a 2021 survey conducted by Unicef and Gallup in 21 countries showed: a median of one in five young people aged 15-24 said they often felt depressed and had little interest in doing things. And as the pandemic wears on, Unicef warned that the longer children are out of school, the less likely they are to return.
The lockdowns had also forced teachers and students to adapt to the blended learning system that combines traditional face-to-face interaction with online classes and multimedia coursework. But for developing countries like the Philippines, blended learning has only highlighted disparities in access to education and technology, and further disadvantaged poor students. It also affected the quality of education as it led to situations where students have lost the drive to study and forced parents to answer the modules themselves. Then there were stories of students literally climbing mountains, rooftops, or trees to get a mobile signal or internet access so they could submit school requirements or talk to a teacher, exacerbating “education poverty” as many more poor students do not even own phones, much more a laptop.
The delays in resumption of face-to-face classes, however, are attached to interrelated issues that once more boils down to the government’s poor COVID-19 response, the weakest in the region in fact: lack of medical support or financial aid extended to teachers who contract the virus, access to free testing in general, and low vaccination rate made worse by vaccine hesitancy, not to mention the capacity of schools to implement health protocols to protect their staff and students. Unless these issues are immediately and efficiently addressed, the impact on the future of Filipino schoolchildren who have already missed education opportunities for two years in the pandemic may be more disastrous, especially for the poor and marginalized. And as more contagious variants of the coronavirus continue to evolve and wreak havoc on people’s activities and mobility, the toll on children’s education and mental health deepens.
“Without urgent action and increased investment, the COVID-19 and pre-existing learning crisis could turn into a learning catastrophe … We must reopen schools for in-person learning as soon as possible, and we must immediately address the gaps in learning this pandemic has created. Unless we do, some children may never catch up,” said Unicef.