Unicef exec: PH can take ‘school reopening’ lessons from Asian neighbors | Global News
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Unicef exec: PH can take ‘school reopening’ lessons from Asian neighbors

/ 05:46 AM September 09, 2021

The government can draw from the experiences of other countries in safely reopening schools because the costs of prolonged school closure outweigh its benefits, an education expert at the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) said on Wednesday.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic that has led many countries to enforce distance learning for their students, Asian nations such as Japan, China, Vietnam and Indonesia have reopened their schools in all or in targeted areas.

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Isy Faingold, Unicef Philippines chief of education, noted how Indonesia, which struggled with a surge in COVID infections and closed its schools in March last year, had managed to gradually conduct limited in-person classes even in its capital, Jakarta.

The key to Indonesia’s strategy was developing safe-school reopening guidelines and a decentralized system for decision making about reopening, Faingold said in an online forum organized by the Movement for Safe, Equitable, Quality and Relevant Education (SEQuRE).

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Global best practices

Citing global best practices, Faingold said the phased approach had worked in other countries, such as starting with low-risk areas (China, Mexico, Senegal, Vietnam and Indonesia), early grades (Sweden and Denmark), or senior high school (Singapore, Tunisia, Sierra Leone and Malawi).

The United Kingdom, Singapore and Canada also implemented “classroom bubbles,” with limited student interaction across groups and limited closures if infection is detected.

Other measures being adopted worldwide are smaller in-person classes, staggered school days or weeks, classes in shifts or reorganized groups, and having diagnostic systems upon school opening.

No guidelines yet

But in the Philippines, with less than a week before the start of the school year, the Department of Education (DepEd) has yet to present clear guidelines on how to safely conduct in-person classes in areas at low risk of virus transmission, or even a road map on eventually reopening schools nationwide.

President Duterte has also yet to approve the proposal of the DepEd and the Department of Health to allow 120 schools to conduct pilot face-to-face classes.

Faingold noted that 120 was still a small number considering the more than 8,000 schools situated in low-risk areas

“Out of 47,000 schools in the Philippines, there are 8,627 schools located in municipalities considered minimal or low-risk areas, but the proposed pilot is only for 120 schools. The gradual process [of school reopening] could be expanded later,” he said.

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Faingold stressed that school closures had many negative affects on children, including learning loss; psychological, social and emotional impacts; and increasing child labor, pregnancy and child marriage.

“The decision to close schools affected the most disadvantaged children… The cost of keeping schools closed may be even higher than the benefits, and the longer the schools remain closed, the more severe the effects,” he said.

‘One size fits all’

Last month, Unicef said the Philippines was among only five countries in the world that had kept all their schools closed since March 2020. The other four are Bangladesh, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.

SEQuRe convener Mercedes Arzadon said Faingold’s recommendations showed the disadvantages of a “one size fits all” distance learning program across the country.

“We are calling on the Duterte government and education officials to formulate a strategy for the gradual reopening of all schools this school year. It has already been proven that the current distance learning setup is not working, if not totally and merely onerous to the education sector—especially poor rural children,” said Arzadon, an education professor at the University of the Philippines.

Dr. Josh San Pedro of the Coalition for People’s Right to Health said it was understandable that fearful and worried parents would refuse to send their children back to school given the risks.

It is thus necessary to have accurate data that will give “the true picture in communities,” San Pedro said.

“The pandemic response hasn’t been handled in the best possible way. The risks are there… but not every parent and household can do distance learning. It’s for the privileged in the Philippines,” he said.

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