Millions return to Philippine schools after virus lockdowns

MANILA, Philippines (AP) – Millions of students wearing face masks returned to elementary and high schools in the Philippines on Monday for their first face-to-face classes after two years of a coronavirus lockdown that is feared to have worsened one of the illiteracy the world’s most alarming rates among children.

Officials faced daunting challenges, including classroom shortages, lingering COVID-19 fears, an approaching storm and earthquake-damaged school buildings in the country’s north, to re-accommodate many of the more than 27 million students who enrolled in the school year.

Only more than 24,000 of the country’s public schools, or about 46 percent, could open face-to-face classes five times a week starting Monday, while the rest would still resort to a combination of face-to-face and online classes until November. 2, when all public and private schools must bring all students into classrooms, education officials said.

About 1,000 schools will not be able to fully switch to face-to-face classes during the transition period that ends Nov. 2 for various reasons, including school building damage caused by a powerful earthquake last month in the north, officials said .

The Department for Education said some schools would have to split classes up to three shifts a day because of a long-standing shortage of classrooms and to avoid overcrowding that could turn schools into new epicenters of coronavirus outbreaks.

“We always say our goal is only two shifts at the most, but there will be areas that would have to resort to three shifts because they’re really overcrowded,” Department of Education spokesman Michael Poa said Friday at a wheel of press Despite many concerns, education officials said it’s “all systems go” for the resumption of classes on Monday, he said.

Senator Joel Villanueva, however, said these assurances must be accompanied by real improvements on the ground.

“The era of disappearing classrooms, sharing tables and chairs and holding classes in the shade of trees must no longer happen,” said Villanueva, who introduced two bills calling for additional groceries, transportation and medical allowances for teachers of public schools.

Among the hardest hit by the pandemic in Southeast Asia, the Philippines, under then-President Rodrigo Duterte, enforced one of the world’s longest coronavirus and school closures. Duterte, whose six-year term ended on June 30, had rejected calls to reopen face-to-face classes for fear it could ignite new outbreaks.

The prolonged school closures sparked fears that literacy rates among Filipino children, which were already at alarming levels before the pandemic, could worsen.

A World Bank study last year showed that about nine out of 10 children in the Philippines suffered from “ learning poverty”, or the inability of children at age 10 to read and understand a simple story.

“Prolonged school closures, poor health risk mitigation, and family income shocks had the greatest impact on learning poverty, leaving many children in the Philippines unable to read or understand a simple text at age 10,” UNICEF Philippines said in a statement.

“Vulnerable children, such as children with disabilities, children living in geographically isolated and disadvantaged areas, and children living in disaster and conflict zones, fare much worse,” said the United Nations agency for the childhood

Poa said 325 temporary “learning spaces” are being built in northern Abra province and outlying regions to replace school buildings damaged by the powerful July 27 earthquake.

Education officials also scrambled to help more than 28,000 students find new schools after at least 425 private schools closed permanently since the pandemic hit in 2020, mostly due to financial losses. About 10,000 of the students have been enrolled in public schools, according to Poa.

Poverty has also been a key obstacle to education. Mobs attacked the offices of the Department of Social Welfare and Development to demand cash aid for destitute students on Saturday, injuring at least 26 people who were trapped at the front doors and prompting its top official to go on television to ask for order

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