By Argyll Geducos, Martin Sadongdong, and Alexandria San Juan
Education Secretary Leonor Briones said local chief executives in Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal, and Quezon (Calabarzon) were already tasked to look for other areas where those affected by the Taal Volcano eruption may be relocated, saying classes of students cannot remain suspended any longer.
Interviewed at the sidelines of the Duterte Legacy Campaign in Pasay City, Briones said the education of students is disrupted because of the evacuees occupying the schools.
She said Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea already ordered the local government of Batangas to look for areas where evacuees occupying the 178 schools in the region may be relocated.
“We need to find a solution because classes cannot resume if they are still there,” she said Friday.
“Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea went there yesterday (Friday) and advised the governor to identify spaces where they can put up temporary shelters,” she added.
Based on the Department of Education (DepEd) data, a total of 1,447 classrooms from 178 schools in Batangas, Cavite, Laguna, and Quezon are currently being used as evacuation centers for Taal Volcano eruption victims.
As a result, the regular classes in areas where no class suspension is in effect are affected.
DepEd also said 2,471,960 learners were affected by the Taal Volcano eruption as of January 16.
Briones said despite the ongoing eruption, they had no choice but to move the evacuees out of the schools because the education of students was starting to get affected.
“We can’t do anything about it. A choice has to be made. You have to make a choice,” she said.
78 schools abandoned
Based on the DepEd data, a total 78 public schools were already abandoned as a result of the lockdown being implemented in some towns of Batangas.
The abandoned schools are located in areas close to the Taal Volcano.
The figure, however, does not include the two elementary schools at the volcano island which were already ordered shut down in November last year after the provincial government declared that it must be a no-man’s land.
Avoid schools as relocation
The Education secretary, meanwhile, reiterated her call to avoid using schools as evacuation centers.
“We do not want to sacrifice or disrupt the classes because schools are the students’ home,” Briones said.
“May gap (There is already a gap) and this is why we are trying to solve the problem of the learners whose classes have been suspended by negotiating with the local government so that they can identify spaces where they can put up temporary shelters for the evacuees so the children can go back to schools,” she added
Briones said she recently signed an order telling public schools to accept Taal-affected students with or without the necessary enrolment requirements.
She likewise said schools in Calabarzon would have to extend school hours or have classes during holidays so they can catch up with the required number of school days.
“We have to make up for the lost days of classes. We have a requirement of more than 200 days,” Briones said.
“Usually, we extend class hours) or have classes during holidays. Because if you do not follow the school calendar, the next academic school year will also be affected,” she added.
Briones said teachers can refuse to hold classes during holidays or to extend class hours but they will not get paid if they will not comply. She, however, said she understands the plight of teachers who were also affected by the Taal Volcano eruption.
“They won’t get paid if they’re absent because it’s no work, no pay ‘yan. That’s what the law says,” she said.
“They can refuse, they can also not refuse. But in our experience, they don’t refuse. Totoo ‘yan (It’s true), they have problems also. They have lost their houses, etc. That’s why we encourage them to take advantage of loans,” she added.
The extent of damage caused by the Taal Volcano is massive, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) Executive Director Ricardo Jalad revealed after officials conducted an aerial reconnaissance in areas near the volcano on Friday.
Collapsed houses due to the unbearable weight of ashfall, withering vegetation and dead animals – these were just some of the observations noted by the NDRRMC.
“The damage to the vegetation and houses in Taal island is massive. Even in the lakeshore areas, especially in the west and northwest side of the volcano. Some houses collapsed due to the heavy ashfall, said Jalad, who Jalad spearheaded the aerial reconnaissance with disaster response and military officials.
“As we go farther from the lake, hindi na ganoon kalaki yung damage mostly sa ashfall lang (the damage was not that severe, it was mostly due to ashfall). Almost all houses were covered with ash,” he added.
About 100 cows were also spotted on Taal island, some of them still enduring the effects of the ash fall while others have already died. Jalad said coordination was made with concerned officials to rescue the animals.
On their way back, Jalad said Taal spewed a plume of black smoke, indicating that Taal’s volcanic activity was ongoing.
Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) director Renato Solidum Jr. said Friday it will take at least two weeks of close observation to check if there is a downward trend on the activities of Taal Volcano before deciding whether to lower its alert level.
“Definitely, we are still seeing movement of magma under Taal, so we usually give a two-week observation period to avoid the resurgence of activity that could lead to another eruption,” he said.
In the latest update on the volcano’s activity, the Phivolcs chief said “steady steam emission and infrequent weak explosions” have been observed in the main crater in the past 24 hours.
These activities generated at least 100- to 800-meter tall dark gray ash plumes which blanketed lakeshore communities in the southwest to west of the main crater.
Despite the “relatively lull” period of Taal Volcano as observed in its surface crater, Solidum warned there is still a threat of hazardous explosive eruption as movement of magma underneath Taal continues.
Intense tremors persist
According to Solidum, 65 volcanic tremors were plotted near Taal from Thursday morning to Friday morning, two of which were registered at magnitudes 1.3 to 3.1 and were both felt at Intensity I.
This brings to 634 the total volcanic quakes recorded by the Philippine Seismic Network since the afternoon of Jan. 12, 174 of which were registered at magnitudes 1.2 to M4.1 and were felt at Intensities I to V.
The Taal Volcano Network, which can detect low-frequency tremblors, already plotted a total of 944 volcanic quakes within the volcano island.
Phivolcs’ Volcano Monitoring and Eruption Prediction chief Mariton Bornas said this intense seismic activity likely signifies that there is continuous magmatic intrusion beneath the Taal edifice, which may lead to further eruptive activity.
Existing fissures have widened
Bornas also mentioned that the existing fissures or cracks on the ground identified in several barangays of Lemery, Agoncillo, Talisay, and San Nicolas in Batangas have been observed to widen by a few centimeters.
Phivolcs added that a steaming fissure has been found on the northern slopes of Taal Volcano Island, while the receding of the shoreline has been observed in the whole of Taal Lake.
“The fissures have widened, signifying a deformation of the caldera. Sulfur dioxide emissions are still high, and we are continuously recording volcanic quakes and low-frequency quakes. These parameters show there is still an upward movement of magma inside the volcano,” Bornas said.
“Danger remains imminent as the possibility of a hazardous explosive eruption is still there,” she added.
Meanwhile, tThe Philippine National Police (PNP) deployed on Friday at least 1,017 police personnel to Batangas and Cavite to help in the evacuation of affected residents.
Lieutenant General Guillermo Eleazar, the chief directorial staff, said the deployed cops are members of the PNP Reactionary Standby Support Force (RSSF) who were mobilized on the orders of Lt. Gen. Archie Gamboa, PNP officer-in-charge.
Eleazar said 693 cops were sent to Batangas, while 324 were deployed to Cavite. They were given face masks and goggles for their protection. (With a report from Aaron B. Recuenco)