Special Report: Same school problems, but Covid raises risks (First of three parts)

AS CEBU’S public schools start conducting full face-to-face classes on Nov. 2, 2022, officials admit that the problems schools encountered before the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic struck in 2020 continue to plague basic education, but now with possibly starker consequences.

The lack of classrooms, chairs, learning materials and teachers are just some of the challenges besieging Cebu’s public schools as the Department of Education (DepEd) ordered schools nationwide to resume limited face-to-face classes on Aug. 22, and now full five-day face-to-face classes.

Typhoon Odette (Rai) worsened the classroom shortage when it hit Cebu last Dec. 16.

This does not augur well for the full return to school of over two million students in Central Visayas in the time of a health crisis.

The mother of a Grade 1 student at a public school in Minglanilla town, Cebu expressed concern that even if there is enough space in her child’s classroom, masking and physical distancing have not been strictly observed.

She said the restless seven-year-olds removed their masks during class and also moved the chairs that had been set up for distancing at the start of the school year closer to each other, despite their being admonished by their teacher.

How much greater would the health risk be in classrooms with no such luxury of space?

Last Oct. 7, DepEd spokesperson Michael Poa said while the wearing of masks in open spaces or non-crowded areas with good ventilation, as well as when playing sports and other physical activities, was voluntary, mask wearing remained mandatory for all personnel, learners and visitors inside classrooms, laboratories and other school rooms under DepEd Order 39.

The DepEd has yet to react to President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s Executive Order 7 last Oct. 28 making mask wearing indoors optional, except in healthcare facilities, medical transport vehicles and public transportation.

Lack of classrooms

DepEd Central Visayas (DepEd 7) Director Salustiano Jimenez told SunStar Cebu that they are doing their best to ensure that their students are well taken care of despite the many challenges they have faced following the opening of the new school year.

Last August, Jimenez said many public schools still lacked classrooms. He said there were 4,671 public and private schools in the region, of which 3,375 were public schools.

Last Oct. 11, Jimenez told SunStar that in Cebu, some 2,000 classrooms damaged when Typhoon Odette struck last Dec. 16, remained unrepaired.

About 3,000 of the 5,000 classrooms damaged by Odette, however, had been repaired through the assistance of local government units (LGUs) in Cebu and non-government organizations.

Though the national government already allocated P1.2 billion to DepEd 7 for the repair of damaged classrooms, Jimenez said they needed at least P7 billion to repair all the damaged classrooms and construct more classrooms in schools that needed them the most.

With DepEd’s national budget for 2023 now at P710.6 billion, Jimenez hopes their central office will allocate the needed funds to the region to address the classroom shortage.

No roofs

The lack of classrooms is a perennial problem in the Philippines where funds are limited while the population continues to grow.

The Alliance of Concerned Teachers placed the average yearly increase in enrollment in public schools at 2.5 percent in the last five years.

Principals in some public schools in Cebu cited the challenges they’ve faced since limited in-person classes began last August.

Sonia Cogtas, who heads the Malubog Integrated School (MIS) in Barangay Malubog, Cebu City, told SunStar Cebu that while she and her teachers are well prepared to start full face-to-face classes on Nov. 2, their classrooms are still not enough to accommodate all their students for this school year.

Cogtas said MIS, located 12 kilometers from the heart of Cebu City, was one of the many schools in the city badly hit by Typhoon Odette.

Cogtas lamented that 10 months after the typhoon, some classrooms had yet to be repaired.

She said one classroom at the high school level has no roof until now.

Though some of their classrooms’ roofs had been fixed, damage on their walls and ceilings was still evident.

Cogtas said the city government through the Local School Board (LSB) immediately assisted them with classroom repairs, but since other schools also need help, the damage in their school has not been completely fixed until now.

At the Talisay City National High School (TCNHS) in Barangay Poblacion, considered the biggest school in Talisay City and among the biggest in Central Visayas, school head Eamon Alido said the lack of classrooms at the public school remains apparent, especially as it has 6,168 students enrolled this school year.

Band-aid solutions

To address the lack of classrooms, some public schools have implemented shifting class schedules to accommodate all their learners.

The first batch of students has classes from 6 a.m to 12 noon, while the second batch enters after that and ends classes at 6 p.m.

Double shifting—having two classes take turns using the same classroom—to address the lack of classrooms has been practiced in Cebu as early as 2005, or 17 years ago, with the cities of Cebu and Mandaue then starting their morning shift at either 6 or 6:30 a.m.

Later, Lapu-Lapu and Talisay cities also resorted to the same practice to accommodate an increase in enrollees, including transferees from private schools.

Though this practice had been observed even before the Covid-19 pandemic, the two school heads hope additional classrooms will be built so all students can learn throughout the day.

Public schools in Olango Island in Lapu-Lapu City face the same problem, with one whose problem is compounded by the question of its continued use of the school’s site.

Zenaida Abrasada, who heads the Sta. Rosa Elementary School in Olango, said with the school lacking at least three classrooms, they had decided to conduct shifting in four classes in one day—particularly two sections in Kindergarten and Grade 1.

One Grade 2 class at the school holds classes at the school stage due to the lack of classrooms, she said.

Abrasada said they may expand their classrooms depending on the number of enrollees.

Although a lot of stakeholders would like to donate buildings, Abrasada disclosed that their site, which had reportedly been donated by a certain individual a long time ago, is now under court litigation after someone allegedly claimed ownership of the land where the school stands.

To address the classroom shortage, Abrasada said they are set to build a temporary learning center, consisting of three makeshift classrooms in the vicinity of the school starting this month using the school’s Maintenance and Other Operating Expenses (MOOE) budget amounting to around P57,000 per month for this school year.

Abrasada said they had three makeshift classrooms already, which they had put up as they awaited word on their request for three classrooms, but all were damaged by Typhoon Odette.

In the case of MIS in Cebu City, the main problem is funding.

Cogtas said they continue to appeal for assistance for classroom building and repairs.

“We are appealing to the public or kind-hearted individuals or private institutions who can give us a building. Since we don’t have the budget, we cannot pursue it,” said Cogtas.

Cogtas added that their school does not have a library and laboratories that can enhance the learning experience of the students and having additional classrooms would pave the way for the installation of these facilities.

Cogtas and TCNHS’s Alido said their schools will submit a request to the DepEd and to their respective LGUs for the construction of additional classrooms next year.

Cogtas said she had already talked with personnel from the DepEd Cebu City Division about the request for additional classrooms, but she doubts that MIS will be prioritized since there are many other schools that also need more rooms.

Cogtas said they currently need nine classrooms—seven for the elementary school level and two for junior high school.

Help on the way

Cebu City LSB head Ian Hassamal said they plan to build at least 100 new classrooms by 2023, but no specific locations were given on where these structures would rise.

Hassamal explained that their office is prioritizing the repair of roofs of classrooms damaged by the typhoon and they have already spent P20 million for the purchase of construction materials.

Of the 87 public schools in the city, only 13 schools have not yet been repaired, he said.

Hassamal said they are sourcing their budget from the city’s Special Education Fund which is sourced from a portion of the city’s collected real property taxes.

To cope with the budgetary deficiency, Hassamal said they also partnered with private companies and other stakeholders to expedite the repair of the schools.

As for DepEd Cebu City Division Schools’ Superintendent Dr. Rhea Mar Angtud, she said they had requested from the DepEd national office a budget for the construction of 44 classrooms worth a total of P132 million to replace those destroyed during Typhoon Odette.

For TCNHS, Alido said they have requested DepEd’s Central Office for the construction of two school buildings that can house 35 additional classrooms.

However, there is no longer a buildable space in the school so their struggle now is to secure an available lot for the proposed school building.

Alido said they are eyeing the demolition of existing buildings that don’t have any more value that will be allowed by the Commission on Audit.

To address the needs of the current student population, Alido said they will install tents within the school property to serve as temporary learning centers.

Lack of chairs

Aside from classrooms, school officials in the region disclosed that majority of the public schools also lack chairs.

Alliance of Concerned Teachers-Central Visayas president and public school teacher Antonia Lim told SunStar Cebu that many schools don’t have enough chairs for their students.

Jimenez acknowledged that the region needs at least 65,000 chairs to help meet the needs of around 1.9 million students who had enrolled in public schools in Central Visayas.

Jimenez, however, said they are slowly solving the problem through the assistance of LGUs.

Earlier this month, the Cebu Provincial Government donated around 100,000 chairs for public schools in Cebu. This helped keep the deficiency in the region to 65,000.

Jimenez said the chair shortage recurs, pointing to unavoidable instances such as calamities and misuse by students as the causes of many damaged chairs despite the usual chair replacements.

Abrasada said her school in Barangay Sta. Rosa lacks chairs as some of the old chairs were damaged by Odette while the newly donated plastic chairs were easily damaged by their students.

She said some students are using monobloc chairs as an alternative while the school also ordered tables.

To address the lack of chairs, Jimenez said some public schools place their students in several shifts per day to ensure that each student has a chair—the same strategy schools use to ensure that students have a classroom.

Students are divided into two schedules, with 30 for each class to use one classroom. There is a morning class from 6 a.m. to 12 noon and an afternoon class from 12 noon to 6 p.m.

Lack of teachers

As for the lack of teachers, Lim said this problem has been felt immensely in public schools, particularly in rural areas where some teachers reportedly handle about 80 students per class while doing non-teaching work besides.

Jimenez said the lack of teachers is due to several factors such as that some of them go abroad for better opportunities, retire or resign from their post.

Addressing the lack of teachers also takes time, Jimenez added, especially with the DepEd’s tedious process in hiring new teachers, which would often last months.

“It is not that easy to replace those teachers who left because although some teachers already have an item to teach, they need to go through a hiring process,” Jimenez said.

At present, Jimenez said DepEd 7 has about 82,000 personnel, of which at least 77,000 are teachers.

The lack of teachers increases the teacher-student ratio, which had not been adequately addressed even before the Covid-19 pandemic began.

Jimenez said the ideal teacher-student ratio for public schools is one teacher per 25 students for kindergarten, 1:30 for Grades 1 to 4, 1:40 for Grades 5 to 6, 1:45 for Grades 7 to 10 and 1:40 for senior high students or Grades 11 to 12.

Although each school has varying teacher-student ratios, some schools have teachers handling 50 students, particularly for those situated in the countryside, Jimenez said.

Julie Diaz, who handles Grade 4 classes at the Sta. Rosa Elementary School in Olango Island, said some teachers quit their jobs to look for better pay.

Diaz said teachers like her who hold Teacher 1 positions receive a monthly salary of P26,000.

When the Covid-19 pandemic forced teachers to conduct distance learning, their salaries went to acquiring laptops and printers needed to prepare learning materials for their students.

Though the school division and some private stakeholders were able to donate printers and other learning devices, Diaz said teachers like her voiced out to their superiors the need for better salaries as they were forced to make out-of-pocket expenditures to ensure continuous learning for their students at the height of the pandemic.

Diaz said the P26,000 salary for those holding Teacher 1 positions was not enough and forced some teachers to quit.

No limit

The lack of teachers has added implications during a pandemic when big class sizes mean squeezing more people into a single room, raising the risks of crowding and Covid-19 transmission.

Vice President and Education Secretary Sara Duterte has set no limit on the number of students allowed in a class during in-person classes.

As for physical distancing, her DepEd Order 39, issued last September, says personnel, learners and visitors in both public and private schools should observe it only “whenever possible.”

It also says eating should be done “with distancing whenever possible.”

This means that to a large extent, if teachers cannot control the actions of their students, the students will have to look out for themselves.

In a private school in Talisay City, Ken, a Grade 6 student, was told students had to take their meals with their classmates inside the classroom. But fearing for his own safety as he would have to remove his mask to eat, the youngster decided to take his daily lunch alone in the garden outside without a proper chair or table to set his food on.

Jimenez said DepEd 7 has received no reports of either students or teachers contracting Covid-19 since the start of the limited face-to-face classes.

However, anecdotal evidence of Covid-19 infection exists.

In one of the large private schools in Cebu City, a doctor said a number of teachers had contracted Covid-19 since limited in-person classes began last August.

The doctor learned about the cases after the teachers sought treatment.

Not full for now

Not all schools in the region are set to implement full face-to-face classes this Nov. 2.

One school that won’t implement full face-to-face classes is the Talima Elementary School in Barangay Talima, Olango Island in Lapu-Lapu City.

Dr. Melissa Torrefiel, one of the school’s senior teachers, said they can’t implement full face-to-face classes as majority of their classrooms remained unrepaired after Odette.

But Torrefiel said the minor damage had been slowly repaired, particularly the roofs of classrooms, thanks to their school’s MOOE.

According to her, about 18 classrooms had incurred major damage or were not yet utilized, including a four-story building with eight classrooms that were reportedly subject to retrofitting prior to the Covid-19 pandemic because they did not pass the standards of DepEd to begin with.

This was a project by the Department of Public Works and Highways that when inspected was found to be substandard, Torrefiel said.

With the lack of classrooms their major problem in the return of in-person classes, Torrefiel said their school head found it hard to decide where the 26 sections would be temporarily housed after the typhoon.

Torrefiel said their school had not been included in the DepEd’s national budget for new classrooms this year, so they hope private stakeholders will extend help for the repairs.

She said some stakeholders had committed to repair two of the unused classrooms for P500,000.

In the meantime, Torrefiel said, to address the classroom shortage, they are observing two shifts of classes—one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

She said Kindergarten, Grades 1, 5 and 6 already implemented the full face-to-face classes or five days a week in school while Grades 2, 3 and 4 are still implementing the blended learning.

Torrefiel said they had enough teachers, adding that classes are still manageable having a ratio of one teacher to around 30 students.

She said they were happy with the return of face-to-face classes as they could teach their students more effectively compared to using modules, wherein they cannot tell whether the questionnaires were answered by the students or by their family members.

Blended learning

Under DepEd Order 44, all public schools must transition to five-day in-person classes by Nov. 2, except for those expressly provided an exemption by the regional director, those whose classes are automatically cancelled due to calamities, and those already implementing alternative delivery modes under pre-pandemic guidlines or under the homeschooling program.

Some schools are now requesting DepEd 7 to authorize them to still use blended learning rather than full face-to-face classes.

In Mandaue City, at least four national high schools in Barangays Pagsabungan, Tipolo, Canduman and Paknaan have requested DepEd to allow them to continue to use blended learning methods as some of these schools still lack classrooms or have classrooms but which have remained unrepaired after Odette.

Dr. Nimfa Bongo, DepEd’s Mandaue City Schools Division superintendent, said as of Oct. 19, they had not yet received a response from Jimenez on their request.

Should Jimenez approve their request, Bongo said, these four schools would implement alternate classes such as two days modular and three days face-to-face classes.

Aside from the four schools, Bongo said the 41 other public schools in the city will do class shifting due to the high number of enrollees.

Bongo said they had no problem when it came to class shifting as they had already experienced doing this even before the pandemic.

She said 13 senior high schools in the city lack teachers.

Data from the school division showed that Mandaue City had 69,691 enrolled students this school year, 39,737 of whom are elementary and 29,954 secondary school students as of Sept. 30.

This is lower than the 71,654 enrolled students in school year 2021-2022.

Compromised

Dr. Joyce Diano Quizeo, principal of the Paknaan National High School, told SunStar Cebu that blended learning was necessary for their school not only to address the lack of classrooms but also to address their large student population.

Quizeo said about 48 sections would still have to attend alternate classes, wherein Set A would go to school three days a week while the Set B would just have two days, and then Set B would have the three-day face-to-face the next week.

Due to the lack of classrooms, Quizeo said they even have five sections of Senior High conducting classes at the school gym since August 2022, particularly Grade 11 which had just opened this school year.

Quizeo said they had at least 2,671 enrolled students from Grades 7 to 11 as of September this year with only 16 classrooms, excluding the Home Economics room and computer lab.

The number of students grew as Quizeo noted they had only 2,508 enrollees last school year.

She said there are about 48 classes in junior high with 12 sections per grade level and five classes in senior high.

Quizeo said they are in need of about 43 classrooms.

With this, about four classes in each grade level will have to go to school each shift in the morning, afternoon and night.

About 232 Grade 11 students will have their classes in the afternoon shift.

Should there be no approval from the regional office, Quizeo said they will have to conduct full face-to-face classes but stressed that social distancing will be compromised in that case.

Apart from that, their holding area at the gym would be full, adding that they have only 10 minutes transition for the entrance and exit of students per shift.

For now, Quizeo said, everything is manageable in terms of classes since only half of the school population goes to school per day. But that may change if the entire school population will be required to go to school. (with CTL)