Philippine schools reopen after one of world’s longest shutdowns

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Millions of children in the Philippines have returned to primary and secondary schools for their first in-person classes since the COVID-19 pandemic hit two years ago.

In schools across the country on Monday, students in masks and uniforms lined up for temperature checks as they returned to their classrooms.

In the Guevara Elementary School in Manila, which had shut classrooms since March 2020, sixth grader Sophie Macahilig said she was “excited” to meet her classmates and teachers after two years of Zoom lessons.

“We used to have fun and now I can have fun again,” the 11-year-old told the AFP news agency.

The Philippines is one of the last countries in the world to resume full-time, in-person lessons – sparking warnings that the prolonged closure of classrooms had worsened an education crisis in the country.

The country was among the worst hit by the pandemic in Southeast Asia, and then-President Rodrigo Duterte enforced one of the world’s longest coronavirus lockdowns and school closures. Duterte, whose six-year term ended on June 30, had turned down calls for reopening in-person classes due to fears it might 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 of 10 children in the Philippines were suffering from “learning poverty”, the inability of children by age 10 to read and understand a simple story.

Vladimir Quetua, the national chair of the Alliance of Concerned Teachers in the Philippines, told Al Jazeera that many students have lost skills, as well as their interest in studying.

“Generally, the impact of these two years has been the quality of education. Some of our grade eight students, [do not know] how to write, how to compute numbers. And many of our students lack interest in studying at all,” he said.

‘Step in the right direction’

The United Nations agency for children (UNICEF) welcomed the reopening of schools in the Philippines. Niko Wieland, a spokesman for UNICEF Philippines, said children resuming in-person classes was a “great step in the right direction”.

“Face to face learning is absolutely essential,” he told Al Jazeera from the Philippine city of Makati.

“We know that prolonged absence from school and not being in school leads to higher dropout rates. It deprives children from the ability to learn, to be with their peers, which are so essential, especially in the younger years, when children need to spend their time developing their social skills. So today is a moment to celebrate.”

Only about 24,000 of the nation’s public schools, or about 46 percent, would be able to open in-person classes five times a week starting Monday, while the rest would still resort to a mix of in-person and online classes until November 2, when all public and private schools are required to bring all students back to classrooms, education officials said.

About 1,000 schools will be unable to shift to face-to-face classes entirely during the transition period ending on November 2 for various reasons, including damage to school buildings wrought by a powerful earthquake last month in the north, officials said.

But even as face-to-face classes resume, old problems persist. These include large class sizes, outdated teaching methods, poverty, and lack of basic infrastructure, such as toilets.

The Department of Education said some schools would have to split classes up to three shifts a day due to classroom shortages, a longstanding problem, and to avoid overcrowding that could turn schools into new epicentres of coronavirus outbreaks.

“We always say that our goal is maximum of two shifts only, but there will be areas that would have to resort to three shifts because they’re really overcrowded,” Education Department spokesman Michael Poa said at a news conference on Friday.

In the lead-up to the reopening of classrooms, the government has been ramping up a vaccination drive and will provide students with free public transport until the end of the calendar year.

On Saturday, the government began handing out cash aid to students and parents struggling to cover expenses, leading to chaotic scenes outside distribution centres.

In the city of Zamboanga, 29 people were injured when several thousand tried to push through the gate of a high school.

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