The Joining Forces Alliance (JFA), a global alliance of child-focused international non-government organizations advocating for a renewed commitment of governments to achieve the rights of children, commends and supports the efforts of the Department of Education (DepEd) and the Department of Health (DOH) in identifying 120 schools (100 public schools and 20 private schools) in COVID-19 low-risk areas in the Philippines for the pilot implementation of face-to-face (F2F) classes—100 public schools of which have been cleared for the opening on November 15, 2021. The aforementioned institutions also worked closely with the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF), and other expert organizations in children’s health to come up with operational guidelines that will help in preparing, managing, monitoring, and evaluating the identified participating schools for gradual school reopening.
As DepEd, DOH, and several organizations advocate for Ligtas na Balik Eskwela (Safe Return to School), the alliance would like to emphasize the following recommendations and considerations for the safe return of children to school:
- Participation in the face-to-face classes must be VOLUNTARY. Parents can decide to continue with the distance learning modalities if they are not yet comfortable to send their child to school after extensive discussion of the safety protocols, health standards, and class arrangement of F2F classes. DepEd and DOH must also formulate clear advocacy and communication campaigns emphasizing how the gradual school reopening works and what the benefits are for children returning to school.
- STRICT ADHERENCE to the operation guidelines, including passing the school safety assessment, set by DepEd and DOH in schools and in the workplace. The guidelines must be clear and well-communicated to involve parties especially the parents and learners who will opt to attend F2F classes. A referral system both for child protection and health concerns is also encouraged to be established and popularized among teachers, parents, and children for safeguarding purposes and for when an individual exhibits COVID-19 symptoms in school. Moreover, Local School Boards must be consulted on the strengthening of local School Health and Nutrition programs.
- Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) facilities must be FUNCTIONAL in schools that will reopen and proper handwashing and wearing of face masks must be TAUGHT and PRACTICED. This will further ensure the health and safety not only of students but also of school staff.
- REINFORCE urgency for teachers, school officials, and other key persons to get vaccinated. Although DepEd mandated participating teachers to be fully vaccinated with no comorbidities, vaccinating other personnel who will be involved in the implementation of the face-to-face classes will not only ensure that schools can stay open and they can teach in person, it will also give learners and their parents a sense of security.
- Results of the pilot implementation of face-to-face classes must be REPORTED and COMMUNICATED. After the test run has been completed, discussions on the implementation, the challenges encountered, and the recommendations shall be discussed among concerned institutions and parties. Further consultations involving multistakeholder participation and other necessary changes must then be applied before considering to reopen more schools in COVID-19 low-risk areas.
With the number of enrollees for SY 2021-2022 at only 56.4% compared to last year’s 26.2 million, it is high-time for us to look for sustainable solutions to address the secondary impacts of the ongoing pandemic on children’s education. As of September, Philippines and Venezuela remain to be the only two countries that are yet to have a date for reopening schools.
A survey conducted by UNICEF Philippines and SWS also showed that 84% of the households interviewed for the study observed that children learned less in distance learning compared to face-to-face classes. This further affirms the need to explore and strengthen efforts to prepare teachers, school leaders, parents, and the community for a variety of learning modalities while taking into consideration limitations on finances, connectivity, and ability to supplement and support a child’s learning.
Moreover, the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) warned that just a year of no face-to-face schooling can limit the learning ability of Filipino students resulting to a projected P11-trillion loss in productivity over the next 40 years. This is on top of the current challenges the country is facing in terms of employment, economy, tourism, agriculture, and healthcare.
We would like to clarify: we are not requesting for the reopening of schools in all areas and levels. What we are in support of is its gradual reopening after careful assessment and participatory planning with local children’s groups, parent associations, civil society organizations, and other stakeholders in COVID-19 low-risk areas. This action is crucial in evaluating the ability and capability of both national and local governments to gradually reopen schools in the following months.
As we continue to be mindful of the threat COVID-19 brings to our communities, we appeal to the public to give their support to DepEd as they proceed with the pilot implementation of face-to-face classes. We also implore the latter to ensure that safety measures based on scientific studies and evidence, and other necessary support are in place and available to make sure that no vulnerable groups of children are left behind. We strongly believe that we can usher the safe return of children to school by working together and setting our eyes beyond the current pandemic situation.
About the Joining Forces Alliance
The Joining Forces Alliance on the Elimination of Violence Against Children is a global alliance of child-focused international non-governmental organizations. We are advocating for a renewed commitment of governments to achieve the rights of children. We are composed of ChildFund Alliance, Educo, Plan International, Save the Children, SOS Children’s Villages, Terre des Hommes International Federation, and World Vision.