EVERY organization has had to adjust to the COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) pandemic, including La Salle Greenhills (LSGH). Not only is it getting ready for a new school year by figuring out how to offer a blend of online and physical classes, the pandemic has served as the impetus for the all-boy’s school to finally open its doors to girls — albeit in a limited manner.

For more than 60 years, La Salle Greenhills has been an exclusive all-male private elementary and secondary school — but that will all change this year as the school announced that it will now accept female students for grades 11 and 12. It was a decision that took years of discussion but it was spurred into action this year by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the school’s president.

“This has been on the table for years now… we’ve always discussed it and then end up deferring the decision, but we thought that given the current crisis, it was the right time to do it,” Bro. Edmundo Adolfo L. Fernandez, FSC, president of La Salle Greenhills, told BusinessWorld in a Zoom interview last week.

The school had to “pivot and innovate” because of the pandemic crisis which meant shifting to a more flexible learning experience (a mix of online and face-to-face learning) and the admission of female students in some of the grade levels.

The shift was also “partly in response” to declining enrollment, and because Bro. Fernandez believes “having girls [in campus] will be greatly beneficial to the growth and development of our gentlemen.”

“[Our enrollment] used to be about 5,000 but in the past 10 years we’ve declined.” He said that last year, they had about 4,000 enrollees. Among the reasons for the decline is the heavy traffic as the campus is located along busy Ortigas Avenue in Mandaluyong.

Since its establishment in 1959, La Salle Greenhills — run by the Brothers of Christian Schools — has been an all-male private school. Back then, the main campus, De La Salle Grade School in Manila, was very popular and slots were hard to come by, so a satellite school was set up at Greenhills to accommodate more students. Eventually, the grade school and high school were moved to Greenhills, and the main campus was dedicated to the college.

The main college campus along Taft Avenue, De La Salle University, also started as an all-male school in 1911 but it opened its doors to women in 1973, with 38 female students during its first year of co-education. Today, half of the student body is female.

So why did it take so long for La Salle Greenhills to turn co-ed? Bro. Fernandez admitted that it was because the “alumni are fiercely protective of the all-boys status of our school.”

“It wasn’t an easy decision for me because I knew it would generate a lot of buzz and a part of me wants to keep [the school] all-boys, but I think the educator part of me realizes that going forward, this is the way to go,” Bro. Fernandez said. He himself is an alumnus having graduated high school in 1981.

There were reservations about the shift, yes, but Bro. Fernandez noted that the response has been “very, very encouraging.” After announcing they would be going co-ed in early May and offering a tuition subsidy for the first 20 female applicants, the slots were filled quickly.

“The more I think about it, the more I realize that it’s the right way to go for the school,” he said.

It’s going to be slow going, he admitted — De La Salle University also had very few female enrollees in the first few years that it started admitting women — but he expects it to gain traction. “Look at [De La Salle] now, almost half [of the students] — maybe more now — are female,” he said.

Will La Salle Greenhills’ shift to co-education mean that exclusivity is coming to an end? Not quite, according to Bro. Fernandez.

“There will still be some schools I think that will continue to hold out as an exclusive boys or girls schools because that’s their worldview,” he said, noting that the PAREF schools (all 11 of them) are still exclusive, and La Salle Greenhills’ neighbors — Xavier School in San Juan City (boys) and Saint Pedro Poveda College in Quezon City and Immaculate Conception Academy in San Juan (girls) — still are.

La Salle Greenhills itself will only be partly co-ed as only two grades are open for female enrollees. Bro. Fernandez said they are still discussing when (and if) to open other grades to girls. “At the moment, I can only answer [that] it’s only for senior high school, for now. I can’t say for sure when in the next few years we will fully open for co-ed,” he said.

As they will now be accepting girls on the campus, Bro. Fernandez said that there will be changes in the campus facilities — but the curriculum will still largely remain the same.

“We’ll have to repurpose some of the toilets and probably some locker rooms, but we have time between now and if we open in September. We’ll try as much as possible to welcome our female students with open arms,” he said.

The biggest changes, he said, will not come from physical facilities as they shift to co-ed — they will come from tackling the new school year using mostly online facilities. While Bro. Fernandez is optimistic about the shift, he has a more measured opinion on how the school year will turn out with the pandemic hanging over everyone’s head.

La Salle Greenhills will be adopting a “flexible education system” which is a mix of face-to-face education and home-based learning called Flexible Lasallian Education through Technology and Collaboration at Home or FLETCH. Classes are set to open between July and August.

The Department of Education has set the opening of the 2020 school year for Aug. 24.

“We’ve been preparing, we will begin simulation because there’s going to be a lot of issues that’s going to come out from online learning. It’s a whole new ballgame, it’s uncharted territory,” said Bro. Fernandez, noting that one of their bigger challenges is getting children to learn even if there’s a lack of internet-connected devices in the house (e.g. if four children share a computer in one family, etc.).

But even if schools will be allowed to hold face-to-face classes in August, Bro. Fernandez said that there may be some families who worry that this is not totally safe for their children, so they will continue on a full-online course instead of a hybrid one.

“So that’s where the word ‘flexibility’ comes in,” he said.

Of the 4,000 students enrolled last year, Bro. Fernandez said that he doesn’t expect everyone to return this school year. “In fact, I heard that some are willing to forego the year,” he said, before adding that they have had to let go of their trial and probationary teachers and focus on “re-tooling” their regular 470 teachers to adapt to the new online learning system.

The pandemic, he said, has pushed education to become more flexible.

“If you asked me how [the pandemic] will affect school and how schools will look like after a year or two, I won’t be able to answer you. I think we need to be open to what comes. We need to be adaptable. I don’t think schools will disappear. It’s really a matter of adjusting to the situation and how we are able to deliver or facilitate learning to our students in the best possible way. I think the schools that will succeed, or survive and do well, are the schools that will learn how to adapt properly,” he explained. — Zsarlene B. Chua