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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Rebecca Ratcliffe South-east Asia correspondent

Children back at school in Philippines after 20 months of home study

Children at Longos elementary school in Alaminos, Pangasinan province, one of 120 schools to reopen
Children at Longos elementary school in Alaminos, Pangasinan province, one of 120 schools to reopen. Photograph: Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

Thousands of children have returned to their classrooms after more than 18 months of home study in the Philippines, thought to be the last country to reopen schools since the start of the pandemic.

On Monday morning, 120 schools began on-site lessons through a pilot project. Footage by the broadcaster ABS CBN showed children at a school in Alaminos line up outside to take their temperatures, complete a health form and wash their hands before entering class.

Students, who wore face masks and face shields, sat at desks that were partially covered by plastic windows. To reduce mixing, children are required to eat lunch at their desks and are only allowed to leave the classroom to go to the bathroom.

Children who attended classes on Monday would be taught in groups of no more than 15, and spend between three and five hours in school, education assistant secretary Malcolm Garma told media prior to the reopening.

In September, Unicef identified six countries where schools have remained “almost completely closed” between March 2020 and 30 July 2021: the Philippines, Bangladesh, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Panama, which gradually reopened schools from 31 May. Of these countries, the Philippines is the last to begin resuming in-person teaching.

President Rodrigo Duterte said in June 2020 that in-person classes would not return until a vaccine was available in the country. He continued to reject proposals to reopen schools this year, warning that doing so would put children “in jeopardy” and that they could also infect elderly relatives.

On top of school closures, children in the Philippines have also faced tough lockdown restrictions, including rules banning them from playing outside or in public spaces. Until this month, children in the capital, Manila, have been barred from going to indoor restaurants, shops and arcades. Earlier in the pandemic, doctors’ groups had advised against allowing young children into malls, arguing they are less able to follow disease control measures such as wearing a mask.

Education advocates said the prolonged closure of schools has had a major impact on children’s development and on their mental health. “For many children, particularly in disadvantaged and poorest communities, schools may be the only place where they can have a chance to learn, especially if parents themselves are uneducated or they are too focused on work due to financial stress,” said Shiena Base, a child protection specialist based in the Philippines for the global education NGO Educo. “We also fear that as the situation continues, many children will eventually lose interest in school, or will be forced to drop out.”

At least 1.1 million pupils did not enrol at school during the last academic year, after the pandemic prompted a switch to remote learning. “We believe that some children will drop out and simply not return,” said Base.

A global report by Educo, which included responses from nearly 8,000 children across 12 countries, found that children surveyed in the Philippines, together with those in Bolivia and Guatemela, expressed the strongest desire to study in school. This is possibly because of the drawn-out closure of schools, said Base.

Cases of Covid-19 in the Philippines have fallen since a peak in September, with the country now confirming an average of 2,065 cases over the past seven days, according to Our World in Data, which tracks infections globally. Roughly a third of the population has been fully vaccinated. The Philippines recently began offering vaccination for children aged 12 to 17.

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