Special Report: Same school problems, but Covid raises risks (First of three parts)
AS MORE basic education students return to school with the start of full face-to-face classes on Nov. 2, 2022, they now face challenges they didn’t have to during two years of studying from home: getting daily rides on public transport that have also become more expensive amid pandemic and geopolitical concerns.
The commute from house to school has become expensive during the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic after fares were raised to allow transport operators to still make money amid the social distancing imposed in their vehicles to stem Covid-19 transmission, and now, to cover the cost of higher oil prices driven by the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February.
Crischelyn Abayon, a senior high school teacher working for the Mactan National High School in Lapu-Lapu City, told SunStar Cebu that she spends P90 to P100 a day just to travel from her home in Barangay Babag, in the same city, to school. The distance from her home in Babag to her school is 10 kilometers.
Before the pandemic, Abayon spent just P60 for the one-way trip from home to school that involves three rides—two on jeepneys and the last leg on a tricycle.
Abayon said since the limited face-to-face classes began last Aug. 22, riding a jeep to work had also become a challenge.
“Aside from students, I also have to compete with workers from MEZ (Mactan Economic Zone) just to get a seat on a jeep. Aside from your fellow Lapu-Lapu City residents, there are also commuters from neighboring Cordova town that also come to the city to ride a jeep,” Abayon said.
To avoid getting late, Abayon must leave the house as early as 6 a.m. to be able to catch a ride to work before the peak hour begins.
She is preparing herself for a rougher daily commute now that public schools are required to conduct full face-to-face classes starting Nov. 2.
Though she has the option to transfer work to a public school nearer to her house, Abayon said she would need to qualify for the transfer.
Under the Department of Education’s (DepEd) Department Order 22 series of 2013, teachers seeking a transfer to a school nearest to their home can be prioritized provided they are in the following situations:
When the teacher is declared excess by the school head and/or his or her expertise of specialization is needed in another school, district or division; the teacher has served for more than five years outside his or her home barangay or municipality; the teacher is a bona fide resident of the barangay, municipality, city, or province where the school is located as provided by Republic Act (RA) 8190 or the DepEd Localization Law; the teacher is joining his or her spouse in the same school as covered in RA 4670 or the Magna Carta for Public School Teachers; she is a nursing mother; the teacher’s life is in danger due to armed conflict, hostilities or other similar circumstances in the area where the school is located; or he or she is in poor health condition.
Like Abayon, John Carl Abregana, 40, told SunStar Cebu that getting his 16-year-old daughter to school is becoming costly on a daily basis.
Abregana, who hails from the City of Naga in southern Cebu, said his daughter, a senior high school student in Talisay City, spends P100 to get to her school, a trip that involves taking one traditional public utility jeepney (TPUJ) ride and two tricycle rides.
The P12 base fare for the first four kilometers on a TPUJ is P2 lower than that for a modern PUJ. The fare for every succeeding kilometer on a TPUJ is P1.80, also lower than the P2.20 for the modern PUJ.
Abregana said he contemplated moving his daughter to a nearby school in the City of Naga, but his daughter insisted on staying at her old school as that is where she wants to graduate next school year.
“Niantos na lang ko kay dili sad baya lalim nga pabalhinon nako ang bata basta senior high. Maayo man sad ang iyang performance niya sa school, so wala na lang sad ko nipalag. Pero mao sad lagi, malugi sad ko sa plete-plete kung kanunayon,”Abregana said.
(I just decided to endure the cost because it would also not be easy to have my daughter transfer to another school when she is now in senior high. She is also performing well in her school, so I just let her be. But the regular spending on her commute can really take a toll.)
Abregana said he had no problem when his daughter was still taking modular classes since she went to school to pick up her school modules only once a week.
But when limited face-to-face classes began in August, Abregana saw his expenses for his daughter’s schooling quickly go up.
Despite the higher costs, however, both Abayon and Abregana consider face-to-face classes a much better option than distance learning, saying in-person classes allow teachers to better attend to their students than the modular-based instruction.
With commuter demand expected to rise, Cebu’s transport officials have assured that they will have “sufficient” public utility vehicles (PUVs) for commuters—even if they cannot tell exactly how much the increase in school-related ridership will be by Nov. 2.
Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board Central Visayas (LTFRB 7) Director Eduardo Montealto Jr. told SunStar Cebu last Oct. 27, that starting Nov. 2, more modern public utility jeepneys (MPUJs) in Metro Cebu will operate beyond 10 p.m. to address the lack of public transportation beyond peak hours.
Montealto said the agreement was made during a meeting with Cebu’s MPUV cooperatives on Oct. 15 in preparation for the return of full face-to-face classes in all public schools two years after the Covid-19 pandemic forced children to stay home and the DepEd to implement distance learning to continue their education in a safe environment.
Attending the meeting were representatives of the 69 MPUV cooperatives whose units are operating in the cities of Cebu, Mandaue, Lapu-Lapu and Talisay and the towns under Metro Cebu.
As of Oct. 27, around 1,172 MPUVs were operating in Metro Cebu.
According to Montealto, each MPUV cooperative must assign four MPUVs that would ply the streets after 10 p.m. to collect passengers.
Even if there is no prohibition against it, few MPUJs currently ply the streets late at night, giving office, medical and other night workers a hard time finding a ride home.
The latest agreement with MPUV cooperatives will help not just the usual night workers but also the spillover commuters from the peak hours who were unable to get a ride earlier, as well as students and teachers of night classes that end at 9 p.m. or later, to get rides.
Ordered to return
Under DepEd Order 44 issued last Oct. 17, all public schools must transition to five-day-a-week in-person classes starting Nov. 2, unless they are provided an exemption by the regional director or unless they had already been implementing alternative delivery modes under pre-Covid-19 pandemic guidelines, including those under the homeschooling program.
Private schools, however, may conduct (a) five days of in-person classes, (b) full distance learning, or (c) blended learning, defined as three days of in-person classes and two days of distance learning (modular, online or television/radio-based instruction); and thereafter, four days of in-person classes and one day of distance learning.
There are over two million learners in Central Visayas enrolled in basic education in the school year 2022-2023, of whom some 200,000 are enrolled in private schools.
In the entire Cebu, 1,074,010 are enrolled in basic education, of whom 926,539 are enrolled in public and 147,471 in private schools.
It is unclear how many of these students have already been traveling to school for the limited face-to-face classes that began in August, or how often they have been traveling to school in a week.
But nearly half a million of them, or a whopping 454,835 students, are enrolled in the tri-cities of Lapu-Lapu, Mandaue and Cebu alone, of whom 357,935, being public school students, will need rides daily beginning Nov. 2 if their schools are not close enough for them to walk to or if they have no private vehicles to get to school in.
For public schools, 568,604 are enrolled in Cebu Province, 180,999 in Cebu City, 107,168 in Lapu-Lapu City and 69,768 in Mandaue City.
For private schools, 50,571 are enrolled in Cebu Province, 58,910 in Cebu City, 19,919 in Lapu-Lapu City and 18,071 in Mandaue City.
Earlier, on Oct. 13, Montealto had admitted that providing enough PUVs to address the needs of the riding public had become a “challenge,” especially with public schools soon to fully implement face-to-face classes.
“So far, based on our study, we have sufficient numbers, but our challenge (is) during peak hours from 6 to 9 a.m. and 3:30 to 7 p.m. because students combine with workers to seek rides during those times,” Montealto said then.
Based on the LTFRB 7’s records, around 26,000 PUVs currently operate in the region, of which 18,000 are based in Metro Cebu. Of the number, two percent are currently under maintenance.
To meet the demand for more public transport, the LTFRB 7 has issued “special permits” to allow PUVs to ply outside their designated routes.
Montealto said they have issued special permits to the operators of 3,000 traditional public utility jeepneys (TPUJs), 1,172 MPUVs, 1,500 transport network vehicle services (TNVS), 6,000 taxi cabs and vans-for-hire, and more than 1,000 minibuses and buses.
For traffic officials in the cities of Cebu, Mandaue, Lapu-Lapu and Talisay, the demand for more PUVs to address the growing number of commuters has been a problem ever since the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions allowed more people to go out of their homes.
Though demand for public transport is often felt in his city during peak hours, City of Talisay Traffic Operations and Development Authority chief Jonathan “Joy” Tumulak said the problem mostly has to do with inter-city PUVs.
Tumulak told SunStar Cebu that with some of their public school students being residents of the city, traditional tricycles and electric tricycles (e-trikes) help address the need for public transport within city limits.
According to Tumulak, around 1,800 tricycles are registered with the Talisay City Government. He, however, could not provide a definite number for the e-trikes operating in the city as they are often registered with their barangays.
Each tricycle charges P15 per passenger.
Though there are 30 MPUVs currently operating in Talisay City, Tumulak admits these are not enough to address the demand for PUVs, especially those plying between cities.
Majority of the city’s MPUVs are based in Barangay Poblacion, Tumulak said.
“What we are doing to address the demand even with the limited number of public transport that we have is by instructing our traffic enforcers to properly manage vehicles on intersections. We make sure that they don’t overload. We allow them to accommodate standing passengers but don’t allow them to overload too much,” Tumulak said.
In Mandaue City, officials of the Traffic Enforcement Agency of Mandaue (Team) must contend with commuters’ demand for more public transport as they also manage the city’s worsening traffic situation.
Edwin Jumao-as, Team chief, told SunStar Cebu that they have a lot on their plate, especially with Mandaue City being a traffic bottleneck where vehicles from the cities of Cebu and Lapu-Lapu and from northern Cebu converge.
Jumao-as said to address their traffic woes, they have hired more traffic enforcers and coordinated with the Mandaue City Police Office to lend them a hand.
To address the possibility that more commuters could be on the streets during peak hours now that full face-to-face classes are back, Jumao-as said Team closely coordinated with public schools to come up with their own traffic plans to ensure that school zones won’t be congested.
They also instructed school administrators to ensure that their learners don’t gather on the road outside the school to wait for public transport as this causes traffic.
Like Talisay City, Mandaue also has tricycles that can ferry students studying in public schools situated within city limits. Jumao-as said around 985 tricycle units are registered with the Mandaue City Government.
Tricycle drivers are mandated by city ordinance to charge a minimum fare of P25 for each passenger if they accommodate only two passengers and P20 if they accommodate the maximum of five passengers.
Jumao-as said tricycles have been a great help to their city’s riding public by ferrying them from their houses to the city’s major thoroughfares.
As to MPUVs, Jumao-as said the city currently has 60 modern jeeps that operate from Mandaue City to Cebu City and to Lapu-Lapu City.
In Lapu-Lapu City, officials of the City Traffic Management System (CTMS) said that while they still had a lot of TPUJs operating in their city, these were a necessity especially since only a few MPUVs are plying the city’s roads.
Mario Napule, CTMS chief, said at least 3,000 TPUJs are operating in the city.
The country has been slowly phasing out TPUJs and replacing them with modern units since the PUV Modernization Program was launched by the Duterte administration in 2017.
Aside from the volume of public transport, safety is a concern for children making the daily travel to school.
Mask wearing remains a requirement in public transportation to stem Covid-19 transmission. But standing passengers are allowed in public buses and some MPUVs, and distancing is no longer observed in Cebu PUVs, even if LTFRB Memorandum Circular 2022-070 requires it for standing passengers.
Local traffic officials in the four cities admitted last September to allowing overloading, especially during peak hours, to mitigate bumper-to-bumper traffic and reduce long queues of commuters waiting for a ride.
Nationwide, the number of new Covid-19 cases reported daily has dropped significantly from the peak of 33,000 last January to only 1,099 last Oct. 31, bringing active cases to just 20,227, as vaccination stems the spread of the disease and fewer people report to authorities mild cases they can treat themselves at home. The Department of Health reported only 881 active cases in the entire Cebu on the same day.
In mid-September, World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the end of the Covid-19 pandemic was in sight, though WHO senior epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove at the same time warned of “future waves of infections” caused by different variants.
Only time will tell if the steps toward “normalization” in public transport will help more than hurt students and other commuters as the government moves to manage Covid-19 beyond the emergency phase of the pandemic response to just part of its routine public health surveillance. (with CTL)