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Universities Declare ‘Academic Health Break’; DepEd Lets School Divisions Decide On Class Suspensions

Universities Declare ‘Academic Health Break’; DepEd Lets School Divisions Decide On Class Suspensions
Graduating nursing students of the Universidad de Manila in Manila attend their face-to-face class on Nov. 22, 2021. The government approved the gradual resumption of limited face-to-face classes for all programs as COVID-19 cases went down, only to rise again due to people’s increased mobility and the Omicron variant. Photo by Edd Gumban, The Philippine STAR

At least 126 higher education institutions (HEIs) have implemented an “academic health break” following the recent surge in COVID-19 cases, the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) said on Thursday, Jan. 13.

CHED chairperson J. Prospero de Vera III said these colleges and universities were mostly in Alert Level 3 areas, which include Metro Manila and Calabarzon (Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal, Quezon).

“On the academic break, based on our inquiries, 126 universities have already declared it, starting this January when the number of COVID cases went up,” he said in a virtual “Laging Handa” briefing.

He added that 123 universities would either impose or extend their academic break toward the end of the January as the number of positive cases remains high.

De Vera noted that there is no need for the government to declare a nationwide academic break as most universities and colleges are exercising their discretion depending on the COVID-19 situation in their areas.

He said CHED would conduct another dialogue between health experts and universities to brief them on current conditions and projections on COVID-19 in the next few weeks to guide their decisions on holding classes.

De Vera clarified that the CHED advisory on the implementation of the second phase of limited face-to-face classes to Jan. 31 is just a reference point. The HEIs, he said, would still need to assess the situation on the ground and determine if it would be safe for faculty and students to conduct in-person classes.

Some universities have already decided to postpone the conduct of face-to-face classes due to the COVID-19 situation, as well as the recent typhoon that hit the Visayas and Mindanao.

For one, the Polytechnic University of the Philippines said that it would defer holding these classes until academic year 2022-2023 to focus on improving its online learning delivery.

Ateneo de Manila University also announced that it would indefinitely postpone the return to face-to-face classes to ensure the safety of their community. This includes on-campus classes and work, except for classes in its School of Medicine and Public Health and the administration of the 2020 and 2021 Bar Examinations at the Ateneo Law School.

DepEd: School divisions to decide

The discretion to suspend classes has now been given to regional and local school divisions amid mounting calls for a nationwide “academic health break” due to widespread COVID-19 infections in the country.

In a memorandum, the Department of Education (DepEd) devolved the power to suspend classes and other teaching-related activities to school division offices (SDO) and regional offices (ROs) based on the health status of their teachers and the COVID-19 situation on the ground.

“The ROs/SDOs shall decide on the specific dates and number of days for the suspension of classes as long as the period of class suspension does not exceed two weeks in order to avoid a prolonged disruption in the current school calendar,” the DepEd memo stated.

Class suspension would mean all synchronous and asynchronous classes shall be put on hold, and submissions of academic requirements would be moved to a later date.

Education Secretary Leonor Briones said that they cannot impose the two-week nationwide break as the COVID-19 situation varies from one area to another.

“Right now the management group or executive committee... we cannot say na two weeks na muna magbakasyon [take a two-week break] if the situation has vastly improved especially in the remote places and islands,” Briones said in a virtual briefing.

DepEd Undersecretary Diosdado San Antonio said that any class suspension should be contextualized and would be better handled by officials at the local school level.

San Antonio noted the need for localized decisions that put into account the position of the local government unit (LGU) and the Department of Health (DOH).

Briones added that there is pressure to continue classes as the law mandates that learners should have 220 days of formal learning sessions. This may be disrupted if the DepEd imposes a blanket two-week break.

Schools that impose class suspensions should make adjustments to their school calendar to comply with the law’s mandate, she added.

Earlier this week, the Alliance of Concerned Teachers called for a two-week health break after a quick survey of over 7,000 teachers showed that some 50 percent were feeling ill as daily COVID-19 cases surged to over 30,000.

Classes suspended

Manila has declared an academic break starting today, Jan. 14, suspending all classes until Jan. 21 and cancelling all public activities for this weekend’s feast of the Sto. Niño, as thousands in Metro Manila continue to get infected with COVID-19.

Mayor Isko Moreno announced on Thursday that there would be no classes, physical or online, on all levels in both public and private schools in the city for one week.

“This is to give everyone a health break, reduce the anxiety of teachers. Most of them are doing classes despite their infection,” Moreno said partly in Filipino. “Also, this gives one week for the rest and recovery of students who got infected.”

Moreno also issued a show cause order to the University of the East (UE) Manila on Thursday for its “refusal” to implement a weeklong “health break.”

The city government, through the secretary to the mayor and the bureau of permits, directed UE to explain its side within three days, as well as defend why it should not be slapped with a cease and desist order – which is equivalent to the school’s closure.

The show cause order came after the school’s online student publication RedWire quoted UE president Ester Garcia as saying: “Mayors do not have authority to cancel classes at the tertiary level.”

The Manila mayor, who is running for president in the May 9 polls, also issued an executive order prohibiting religious processions, parties, stage shows, parades, public games and other activities that promote mass gatherings related to the feast of the Sto. Niño on Sunday, Jan. 16.

It is a most revered religious feast for Manileños, especially in Moreno’s home district of Tondo and in Pandacan which have the image of the Infant Jesus as their patron.

Moreno announced although churches are closed, they pledged to offer holy masses online. He added that a liquor ban will be enforced. – Cecille Suerte Felipe, Ghio Ong