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Senators remind DepEd: New law allows class opening past August during calamities

"This August 24 opening is already the furthest of what is legally allowed," Education Secretary Leonor Briones said when asked about the date of the opening of classes, during a virtual press briefing on Monday, August 10.

Briones was referring to RA 7797, which originally mandated the Secretary of Education to set the start of the basic education school year between the first Monday of June and the last day of August. 

But during a Senate hearing on Wednesday, August 12, senators reminded the Department of Education (DepEd) that a new law – RA 11480 – was recently signed, giving Duterte the power to move the class opening to after August, upon the recommendation of the education secretary in light of calamities.

"Mr Chair, I would like to remind the DepEd family that there is now RA 11480, which has been passed by Congress and was signed by President Rodrigo Duterte on July 17. The said law is effective on July 20 because it has been published in the Official Gazette,” Senator Francis Tolentino said in a mix of English and Filipino.  

Citing a provision from the new law, Tolentino told DepEd officials in the hearing: "Within 30 days of the effectivity of this Act, the Department of Education, in consultation with the relevant stakeholders, shall issue the necessary rules and regulations for its effective implementation."

Tolentino said the Senate committee has not yet received a copy of the new law's implementing rules and regulations (IRR), which he said is due on August 19. He asked the DepEd to provide the committee a copy of the IRR within the week.

"Apparently, you forgot in your rush to meet the August 24 [deadline], which has been amended by RA 11480," Tolentino said.

In response, Education Undersecretary Tonisito Umali said: "We will comply, Mr Chair. We still have time. We aren't late yet. We will give the good senator a copy of the draft."

Tolentino brought up the discussion on class postponement amid calls from groups, students, and teachers to delay classes due to growing health concerns and the issue of school readiness.

Meanwhile, Senator Sherwin Gatchalian, chairman of the Senate committee on basic education, recommends postponing the class opening in Metro Manila and nearby provinces if the modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ) is extended.

"My recommendation is that if the MECQ is extended, we should just postpone the school opening in those areas.We can't just let our teachers and parents go out in worsening conditions," Gatchalian said.

He then echoed Tolentino's reminder to DepEd about the newly signed law on class openings. "If the MECQ is extended, we trigger this new law, the RA 11480, to postpone class openings in these areas because the condition is worsening," Gatchalian said.

Metro Manila, Laguna, Cavite, Rizal, and Bulacan remain under MECQ until August 19. (READ: MECQ extension in Metro Manila, Luzon provinces 'highly unlikely' – Malacañang)

Safety of teachers, students 'won't be compromised'

Responding to Gatchalian's suggestion, Umali said that the DepEd will not compromise the safety of its teachers and students in its decision to start the school year on August 24, even if parts of the country will remain under MECQ. 

"We will never neglect the safety of our teachers, staff in our department, especially our students and parents, in our decision to push through with the August 24 school opening in our public schools," Umali said.

Meanwhile, Education Undersecretary Nepomuceno Malaluan said that teachers in areas under MECQ are not forced to go out of their homes to distribute self-learning modules (SLMs). 

A teachers' group, however, earlier demanded assistance from the DepEd after reports that several teachers had contracted the virus after being asked to physically be at schools.

The DepEd said that it has no budget allotted for the treatment of teachers who contract COVID-19. Education Undersecretary Anne Sevilla said that what has been allowed to be charged to agency funds are the supplies needed to comply with minimum health standards. 

Sevilla, however, noted that all government employees, including DepEd employees, are covered by PhilHealth. (READ: No budget for treatment of teachers with coronavirus – DepEd official)

4 million out-of-school children

During Wednesday’s hearing, Malaluan told senators that some 23 million students are about to undergo an education system overhauled because of the spread of the highly infectious COVID-19. 

This school year's enrollees is about 4 million children lesser than the 27.7 million who enlisted last year.

The staggering drop alarmed the lawmakers. Senator Nancy Binay had to clarify: "More or less, 4 million out-of-school youth for the next school year?" Malaluan affirmed this.

The DepEd assured the senators that those left out would not be left behind. "But as of this time, our main focus is those who have enrolled, but we will discuss in greater detail this non-participation [of students]," Malaluan said. (READ: DepEd looking for 'learning opportunities' for some 4 million out-of-school children)

The DepEd decided to shift to distance learning for the coming school year to comply with the President's order that schools postpone face-to-face classes until a coronavirus vaccine becomes available.

But many have criticized the DepEd's decision to open classes in the middle of a health crisis. (READ: No student left behind? During pandemic, education 'only for those who can afford')

Teachers themselves have been asking the DepEd to delay classes to a later date to give them more time to prepare for the digital shift. (READ: 3 weeks into school opening, teachers say they still don't have copies of learning modules)

Despite this, Briones said classes will begin on August 24 in "whatever form." (WATCH: Handa na bang magbukas ng klase sa Agosto 24 ang Pilipinas?)

Ironically, the DepEd launch of the "school readiness program" on Monday morning, August 10, was marred by technical glitches. (READ: Technical problems force DepEd to postpone launch of school 'readiness' program)

The discussion on the class opening in the country comes as a global debate rages about reopening of schools during the pandemic.

A study in South Korea showed that young people between 10 and 19 years old can spread COVID-19 as much as adults do, which means reopening schools can increase virus transmission. At the same time, a US scientific panel recommended face-to-face classes for children who are younger or who have special needs.

The Philippine government has allowed the conduct of "limited" face-to-face classes in low-risk areas in the country starting January 2021. (READ: Duterte allows 'limited' face-to-face classes in low-risk areas)

As of Wednesday, the Philippines recorded 143,749 cases of COVID-19, including 2,404 deaths and 68,997 recoveries. – Rappler.com

Editors note: Quotes in Filipino have been translated into English.

Bonz Magsambol

Bonz Magsambol is a multimedia reporter for Rappler, covering health, education, and social welfare. He first joined Rappler as a social media producer in 2016.

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