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Senators concerned over DepEd plans for face-to-face pilot tests

By Jose Oscar Magpusao

Senators during a hearing on Wednesday scrutinized the test plans of the Department of Education (DepEd) to reinstate face-to-face classes in the Philippines after revealing the areas targeted for the trial run and the lackluster 57 percent of teachers vaccinated against COVID-19.

Education Undersecretary Nepomuceno Malaluan reported that 580,000 of 970,000 teaching and non-teaching DepEd personnel have received the vaccine and also presented the 59 out of the target 120 schools selected for the trial so far.

Senator Nancy Binay noted the disparity between vaccination rates and prioritization of other departments and even businesses such as restaurants and hotels to vaccinate their fronliners and staff compared to DepEd’s, stating that the department should have been preparing as any expansion would only cause further delay to the Philippines’ almost two years without face-to-face classes.

“Nagugulat ako na sobrang baba ng vaccination rate sa DepEd. Para sa akin, ang teachers natin ay important frontliners. I am shocked. Fifty-seven percent for me is still not acceptable, I’m sorry,” she said.

Senator Sherwin Gatchalian urged DepEd to prioritize the inoculation of teachers, especially those participating in the face-to-face trials to allay the fears of parents and ensure the safety of the students.

When Usec. Malaluan presented the schools approved for DepEd tests so far, Senators Binay and Cayetano raised concern for the lack of schools in Luzon and in urbanized areas chosen for the trials, with Cayetano stating that test results would be skewed and, at the right time, future tests should include the National Capital Region (NCR) and other bigger cities because they are “more prepared to deal with the pilot tests.”

“I kind of have a problem understanding why it would be limited to a general assessment of a safe area or a non-safe area when the protocol might be better in these bigger cities. Their safety protocols, their ability to contain, might be better,” Senator Cayetano said.

Senator Gatchalian expressed the concern over why six months would be needed in the timeline to run the test and analyze its result, stating that the pacing of the timeline coupled with the low number of schools tapped for the test would ‘only be hitting the tip of the iceberg.’

The Senators faced the inevitability that the COVID-19 pandemic would not go away soon and urged DepEd to plan around living with the virus rather than hoping for things to normalize.

“Dapat ang mindset natin is how we will live with the virus. Would our education system survive with the virus?" Senator Binay said.

"‘Yung scenario na normal next year? Hindi natin nakikita lahat yan. We need to move on. Kasi kung hihintayin nating magnormal, ibig sabihin noon ‘yung mga eskwelahan natin magsasara forever? Kasi hindi natin napaghandaan ‘yung scenario na COVID-19 would be there. Dapat we plan with the virus. For me, things will not go back to normal ASAP. Matagal pa ito. Long haul ito,” she added.

The pilot tests are scheduled to run from November 15, 2021 to January 31, 2022, with expansions targeted for March 7, 2022. The initial tests will welcome a limited number of students from 120 schools - 95 elementary schools, five senior high schools and 20 private schools - for four hour and 30 minute school days, with only three hours allowed for kindergarten students.

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