Returning to full face-to-face schooling

PATH TO JUSTICE – Emmeline Aglipay-Villar – The Philippine Star

09/20/2022 | 12:00 noon

President Bongbong Marcos’ announcement that he would return to full face-to-face classes this school year was one of the statements met with loud applause during his first SONA. I was among those who clapped, as I agree with the President that it is time for our students to return to the classroom and resume face-to-face classes, where learning and growth can be maximized through face-to-face interaction with their teachers and classmates . Of course, this comes with risks to the health and safety of students and teachers, and we should strive to find the right balance between competing goals.

While most schools, teachers, students, and parents have been able to adapt to remote and hybrid learning methods, in most cases, face-to-face or face-to-face learning is still the ideal. There are many benefits of having students and teachers back in the classroom in terms of academic learning, social interaction and physical activity. Of note is the blessing that in-person learning brings to many with learning disabilities or attention difficulties, as well as economically disadvantaged parents who cannot afford stable internet or expensive equipment, or who are unable to leave home to work when their children are not in school.

But it’s important to remember that COVID-19 remains a major threat, and just because cases have dropped to the point where the benefits of in-person classes outweigh the (still real) dangers, that decision doesn’t mean the end of it Matter. Rather, it is only the beginning of the balance that will always be required to ensure that neither the education of our youth nor their health are carelessly sacrificed to expediency.

This is not and cannot be a return to 2019. The lessons we have learned fighting COVID-19 over the past 2-3 years cannot be mothballed until the next wave – they must be adapted to the present.

The first and most effective protection we have, which made this return to face-to-face teaching possible in the first place, remains vaccination. And we’ve seen from the way COVID is mutating that vaccinations can’t be a one-time thing – booster shots can and will continue to play an important role, and we must not let our immunization drive fall by the wayside. We are already seeing statistics showing that we are lagging behind in getting booster shots to the population because many feel a lack of urgency now compared to before. But the fact that we’re socializing more often doesn’t mean we need fewer vaccinations — in fact, increased exposure to others means vaccinations are more important than ever. Public and private institutions – both schools and government units – must continue to be aware of the importance of vaccination and booster vaccinations in particular and do their best to make these more accessible to students and teachers. (And it’s also important to continue the regular schedule of non-COVID vaccinations for children, as many of these have fallen by the wayside.)

Within the schools themselves, every effort must be made to reduce exposure risks. This includes masks (which the DOH says should still be standard even if mask requirements are relaxed outdoors), ventilation, and physical distancing to the best extent possible. It includes student self-monitoring and daily screening for symptoms or exposure upon entering school premises. When structural problems prevent the ideal application of these health protocols, this cannot be dismissed—doing our best must be matched by an active push to improve the situation, whether through public or private assistance.

While you wait for improvements to physical constraints like classroom availability or class size, there are other, simpler changes that can be made – even incremental increases in protection are better than none at all. This includes ensuring students are not seated across from each other, windows are open, arrival and departure times are staggered, and students are able to eat in classrooms rather than mingling in the cafeteria.

Reducing the overall mix of the school population can help – one measure taken by some schools is the use of groupings or cohorts, distinct groups that serve as a ‘bubble’ to limit and easily identify potential exposures. And there will be some exposure to COVID-19 (after all, even full lockdowns couldn’t completely prevent this) – the important thing is that protocols are in place and that these are clearly communicated to teachers, students and parents. Everyone affected needs to know the answer to fundamental questions: when does a student need to isolate and for how long; how are their classmates and teachers informed; an isolating student can continue to attend classes remotely, and so on.

Distance and hybrid learning methods, adapted in recent years, must be ready to be reinstated either on an individual basis (to give an isolating student an opportunity for learning continuity) or on a larger scale in response to an increase in infections at school or the community. Yes, distance learning is often far from ideal, but that doesn’t make it any less of a useful and viable alternative. We know how insidious COVID can be and we need to shape our plans to accommodate school infections, with an accompanying response.

And at its core, being able to keep the human component in mind and protect the holistic well-being of students and teachers is paramount. We’re still years away from understanding the full impact of the pandemic on students and teachers, and it’s important that as we make the shift to face-to-face teaching, empathy and understanding must be at the forefront of our response to the inevitable hiccups along the way. The transition will not be perfect, and we must give students and teachers the leeway to make mistakes, find their footing, and take the necessary breaks before trying again.

The return to full face-to-face learning is not the end of a process, but the beginning of a more differentiated approach to education, where health and safety are integrated and carefully balanced at every step…because both education and health are non-negotiable.