Can public schools pandemic-proof their classrooms before students’ in-person return?

Story by Cristina Chi

High school teacher Inah Lugo can still picture in her mind scenes of a typical pre-pandemic classroom in Antipolo National High School: 90 students packed from corner to corner, the spaces between chairs almost hairline-thin.

Cramped together and sweating from the heat, some students would get into fights over who gets to sit below the only available ceiling fan in the room, she said. 

“Never in my life did I imagine that I would teach 90 students in a single classroom,” said Lugo in Filipino. She started teaching in the school in 2004. 

She said that returning to this setup during the COVID-19 pandemic would be “unthinkable.” 

After more than a year of school closure, the Department of Education (DepEd) faces the challenge of reopening the country’s limited number of classrooms safely, which stakeholders say will require considerable planning to avoid pre-pandemic scenarios of crowding.

But as of writing, there remains no official date for the gradual return to face-to-face classes, and plans pushing for a dry run have been postponed due to a recent surge in COVID-19 cases. President Rodrigo Duterte previously said that he will wait once ‘vaccines become readily available,’ leaving education officials, teachers and students twiddling their thumbs.

The latest policy concerning face-to-face classes is baked into DepEd Order No. 14 issued in June 2020. Aside from setting up handwashing facilities, the guidelines require schools to implement physical distancing by capping the number of learners in each classroom to a maximum of 21. 

This would require classrooms to house more students even if they came to school on different days of the week, DepEd Undersecretary Alain Pascua told TNP. 

“We still need to build more classrooms because it’s not enough. Even if we make the arrangement ‘Tuesday-Thursday’ and ‘Monday-Wednesday-Friday’ with only 50% of students in attendance,” he added. 

In the past, public schools often resorted to bloated class sizes and congested classrooms to adjust to a shortage of facilities, especially in highly urbanized areas. 

But overcrowded classrooms would no doubt be dangerous in the middle of a pandemic, said pediatric infectious disease expert Mary Ann Bunyi. “If you have a classroom full of students, the ventilation will be compromised. Viral particles from an infected person could easily spread,” she added.

This has ushered in questions on how public schools can come up with enough learning spaces without waiting years for new classrooms to be built.

The problem is that “an insufficient budget and a growing student population every year” outpace DepEd’s capacity to build enough classrooms to meet their targets, Pascua said. 

DepEd’s audit reports show that from 2014 to 2020, only 173,000 classrooms were built out of the 330,000 target. In 2018, only 11 classrooms were constructed out of the 47,000 initially planned.

“It’s difficult for new buildings to be built because of the numerous Build Build Build projects in the Department of Public Works and Highways. School buildings are low on their priorities because it yields little profit,” Pascua said. “We’ve been appealing to lawmakers to give the responsibility to DepEd instead.” 

Outdoor learning 

For schools lacking facilities, however, a possible workaround could be hiding in plain sight. 

Grace Servino, a professor from the University of Santo Tomas College of Architecture, suggested schools can utilize open spaces like playgrounds, lawns and gardens, which in one go, “solves the problem of classroom congestion and the need for ventilation while being cost-effective.”

In preventing COVID-19 transmission, air circulation could also be better outdoors than in congested classrooms, said Bunyi.

Public school classrooms already allow for sufficient classroom ventilation as the standard classroom design emphasizes open windows over air conditioning systems, Servino said. But if too many students are inside a classroom, “this could obstruct the airflow and make it harder for air to be pushed out,” she added.

Almost half of the more than 6,700 public school teachers who participated in a survey by the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT), the largest alliance of teachers in the country, reported poor ventilation in their classrooms.

In other countries like the U.S., schools have moved towards a gradual return to in-person learning by utilizing outdoor spaces and making use of open-air tents.   

Setting up an outdoor classroom is relatively inexpensive, said Sharon Danks, the CEO of Green Schoolyards America in an EducationWeek article. Their organization holds conventions with schools in the United States to help them reconfigure their classrooms in outdoor environments. 

“Today, [most] instruction is happening outside. The teachers who have embraced teaching outside say they don’t see the need to return to the way instruction used to be,” Danks added. 

Outdoor learning advocates in the U.S. spearheaded an assessment tool to help schools figure out the logistics of moving their classrooms outside and reduce the risk of transmission. Among other factors, it considers the size of the school property, the frequency of disruptive weather conditions and the availability of nearby public spaces.

No such initiative has made its way to the Philippines despite the perennial problem of limited facilities in basic education.

When asked if holding classes outdoors can become an option for a limited return to face-to-face classes, Undersecretary Pascua said that it is possible “as long as it won’t rain or it’s not too hot,” but did not elaborate on details or answer whether this can be part of DepEd’s policy for the incoming school year.

In 2019, DepEd Secretary Leonor Briones said that shifting the calendar to start in August would be detrimental to students who have to bear the heat while attending class during summer. But months-long preparations for distance learning in 2020 forced DepEd’s hand to start classes in October, four months later than the usual June opening. 

DepEd has recently announced the start of the school year on Sept. 13.

Feasibility of outdoor learning 

Before the pandemic, teachers holding classes under trees or in open-air covered courts was already a familiar sight in schools struggling to find enough classrooms.

Mangaldan National High School (MNHS) in Pangasinan landed in a 2019 GMA news report when some of their 7,800 students held classes in a covered court due to classroom shortage. Teachers would strain their voices just to compete with the noise from nearby classes.

Mangaldan National High School, which has a large outdoor space where students can gather for study sessions, has been deserted since COVID-19 lockdowns forced school closures in March 2020. Photo by Leo Blaquir

But even if they could return to school, their outdoor space would not handle the school population, which ballooned to more than 8,000 students in 2020.

“There are not enough tables and chairs in the school’s open space,” Principal Leo Blaquir told TNP. “And it is hard to replicate the conduciveness of indoor classrooms. With more classrooms, you feel the accessibility of quality education.”

Schools could be hesitant to explore outdoor learning or alternative learning spaces due to “a lack of precedents and experience and readiness of school grounds,” said Servino.

“If more subjects deal with the practical application [of] working with the physical environment, then outdoor learning can be adopted in our policies for education, especially in the design of our school facilities and curriculum,” she added. 

Consistent with DepEd’s national guidelines, MNHS will focus instead on adjusting the number of students that will come to class in shifts, as building more classrooms would take a while.

But with this arrangement, the school would have to find more teachers to handle more sections, which could be difficult given the low hiring rate, Blaquir said. 

“Only two to three teachers get added to the faculty every year,” he added. 

Since most teachers already handle 50 students in each class, meeting the standard class size of 35 students would be difficult.

Urgent calls

Undersecretary Pascua said that DepEd has long wanted to work towards a gradual reopening of schools in low-risk areas.

But the pace at which the government can work towards a return to face-to-face classes — and for some students, a return to learning entirely — rests on the president’s go signal. 

“We are just waiting for it,” Undersecretary Pascua said. 

DepEd Secretary Leonor Briones herself said in a pre-State of the Nation forum on July 14 that pilot face-to-face classes “may resume” if enough teachers and students get vaccinated against COVID-19 before August. 

As of writing, the Philippines is still ambling along with its vaccination of priority groups of healthcare workers, senior citizens and essential workers, with the DOH projecting that children will get their jabs by the end of the year. So far, only Pfizer has been greenlighted for children aged 12 to 15 years old.

ACT Secretary-General Raymond Basilio said that the government’s “lack of foresight” led to problems with constructing enough classrooms in the past. This is happening again with their lack of plans for returning to physical classes, he added. 

“There isn’t even a plan for the mass testing of teachers. How can we ask them to come back to school?” Basilio said.

Lugo has continuously hoped for the return to face-to-face classes from the moment she had to stop teaching in-person last year. But even if it does take place next school year, Lugo will no longer be there to see it — she has put down the chalk permanently after resigning in April.

“I couldn’t focus on the students in my section. The almost daily meetings ate up my time,” she said. “I became exhausted.” 

Note: This story is a submission for Journalism 195 (Reporting on Pandemics) class under instructor Theresa Reyes.

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