On Jan. 17, 2022, the President approved the progressive expansion of face-to-face classes. Later, the Interagency Task Force for Emerging and Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) issued guidelines on this progressive expansion to make the Philippine education system more resilient in the midst of the pandemic.
According to the Department of Education (DepEd), 14,396 public and private schools were nominated for the progressive expansion phase of in-person classes, accounting for 2,600,773 learners. It was reported that DepEd allotted around ₱1 billion, as support fund, for all public schools nationwide as it shifts to this progressive expansion. The budget can be used to provide television, speakers, and laptops for classrooms to support blended learning — a mixture of in-person and remote learning in the classroom to mitigate the risk of transmission.
In my column’s discussion on children’s vaccination last Feb. 17, 2022, I have stated that the Philippines was the last country in the world to reopen school doors for face-to-face learning. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), an estimated 27 million students in the Philippines have lost more than a year of in-person learning. The UNICEF also noted that children’s lack of in-person interaction with peers has a detrimental impact on the emotional and cognitive development of a child.
Emerging lessons from country experiences in managing the process of reopening schools was jointly published by UNICEF, The World Bank, World Food Programme, and The UN Refugee Agency. As we shift toward the progressive expansion of face-to-face classes, it is best for us to learn from the experiences of other countries that have earlier dealt with the challenges of returning to in-person learning.
On health and safety — sufficient resources should be allocated among re-opening public schools for the implementation of health and safety protocols. Additionally, measures to reduce physical contact and limit transmission should be implemented.
Enough supplies of alcohol, facemasks, handwash, protective equipment, and for regular cleaning and disinfection must be provided for all reopening schools.
In Singapore, United Kingdom, and several provinces in Canada, the concept of “classroom bubbles” was used to limit student interaction so that in case of an infection, the closure would not be class-wide or school-wide, but only within that individual “bubble” where the infection was detected. This, therefore, minimizes learning disruptions.
In China, Italy, Japan, and Scotland, additional teachers were recruited to support smaller class sizes.
In Denmark, outdoor and alternative spaces outside the confines of the classroom (such as museums and sports halls) were utilized to ensure social distancing.
On learning – since blended learning would still be employed, making remote learning as effective as in-person learning should be a priority. Schools should also focus on providing psychosocial support to students.
According to the findings of The World Bank staff and external contributors on remote learning during the Covid-19 pandemic, for remote learning to be effective, it requires three complementary, critical components: (1) effective teachers; (2) suitable technology; and (3) engaged learners. Teachers must be trained to utilize and maximize technology in order to encourage classroom participation. In the virtual classroom, there must be a meaningful two-way interaction.
With the isolation and disconnection, the psychosocial wellbeing of learners should also be a priority. In Turkey, teachers were being trained to provide phone-based psychosocial support. In Nicaragua, recreation kits were provided for students, with the aim to develop socio-economic skills through play.
On wellbeing and protection — constant communication between stakeholders is important for a widely accepted reopening of schools.
The mere approval of our President and the DepEd is not sufficient for the success of in-person learning.
The support of teachers, parents, and students to resume physical classes must be obtained through regular communication. This would address concerns, surface potential innovations and solutions, and forward a widely accepted view of safely sending students back to school.
On reaching the most marginalized – additional focus must be given to marginalized learners and those who are most likely to disengage from school.
In Thailand, their Equitable Education Fund increased its school transfers target to around one million primary school children from low-income families determined to be at risk to drop out of school.
In Croatia, Germany, Norway, and Denmark, their respective school reopening guidelines provided for specific provisions for students with disabilities.
As we move towards the progressive expansion of face-to-face classes, more schools are expected to reopen and more students are expected to participate. Hopefully, this would give birth to a more resilient education system, with the emerging lessons from other countries, as guide, to fast track learning recovery here in the Philippines.