THE NATIONAL Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) said it supports a pilot test of face-to-face classes in low-risk areas for the incoming school year, which is set to begin next month.

In a Viber message Monday, NEDA Secretary Karl Kendrick T. Chua said the country can learn from the pilot test how to gradually reopen in-person classes for more schools.

“Same position. Pilot in low-risk areas and learn from it to gradually expand,” Mr. Chua said in his message.

The Philippines is one of five countries that are still not allowing face-to-face classes since the pandemic began last year, affecting 27 million students, according to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund.

The Inter-Agency Task Force for the government’s pandemic response is set to review the pilot-testing proposal and make a recommendation to President Rodrigo R. Duterte for a decision, the President’s Spokesman Herminio L. Roque, Jr. said last week.

The 2021-22 school year officially starts on Sept. 13 and runs to June 24, 2022, but face-to-face classes are still awaiting approval from the President, according to the Department of Education (DepEd).

Mr. Duterte has rejected proposals to resume in-person classes, citing the need to curb the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) infection rate and to vaccinate a larger portion of the population.

“While the face-to-face class setup is ideal, it might be too risky for the Philippines given our current healthcare capacity, vaccination pace, and infection rates,” Asian Institute of Management Economist John Paolo R. Rivera said via Viber Monday.

He said a return to the classroom can only be done safely once the student age groups are vaccinated, to protect them from severe COVID-19. Otherwise, he said the risk is too high and costs continue to outweigh the benefits.

Around 12% of the total population has been vaccinated as of Aug. 25, according to Our World in Data. The government is only allowing people 18 years and older to receive vaccinations at the moment but is considering jabs for children as young as 12 years.

“We cannot afford to let education quality decline because of the pandemic but new problems require new solutions — government (DepEd and Commission on Higher Education or CHED) needs to be more innovative, creative, novel in uplifting quality of education despite the pandemic,” Mr. Rivera added.

The World Bank’s head of the Education Global Practice, Jaime Saavedra, believes the impact of prolonged school closures on children’s future productivity has resulted in the “most serious education crisis in the last 100 years.” 

“There are no estimates of the benefits of school closures. In contrast, the cost of keeping schools closed in terms of children’s learning, mental health, and socio-emotional development is extortionate,” he said in a blog post.

“Despite countries’ laudable and indispensable efforts to provide remote education, which involved rapid adjustments, many countries are aware that remote learning has been a weak, unequal, and very partial compensation for face-to-face education. The evidence of that is mounting,” he added.

Mr. Saavedra argued that there is no scientific evidence proving virus transmission in schools is worse than in working and recreational environments. The World Bank estimates that the learning poverty rate — the portion of 10-year-olds unable to read and understand simple text — increased to 63% from 53% before the pandemic hit.

By keeping schools closed, he said countries are also losing the ability to equalize opportunities for children since these are considered “safe spaces for stimulation, socialization and meaningful learning.”

Learning opportunities are also constrained by home study, favoring those with good internet connections, better access to books and space to work and depriving those who have no access to these of valuable learning experience.

“The reopening process must be an evidence-based decision. Hence, the main recommendation is ensuring schools have several prevention strategies in place to minimize the spread of COVID-19,” Mr. Saavedra said.

BusinessWorld asked DepEd and CHED for comment but they had not replied at deadline time. — Beatrice M. Laforga