Filipino parents, teachers urge U-turn over government’s back-to-school plans

Teachers wearing face masks and shields against COVID-19 teleconference with students, helping them in their school lessons through online distance learning. (File/AFP)
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Updated 22 September 2021

Filipino parents, teachers urge U-turn over government’s back-to-school plans

  • Classroom return ‘experiment’ in low-risk COVID-19 areas draws mixed reactions

MANILA: Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s thumbs-up for a limited return to classrooms for students in areas with low numbers of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases has been criticized by worried parents and teachers.

The leader’s approval for the resumption of in-person classes in “low risk” parts of the Philippines on Tuesday drew mixed reactions with some objectors urging the government to reconsider its decision.

The government said on Monday that for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak it would reopen nearly 120 schools as part of a “pilot” project.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque pointed out that the move was necessary because otherwise, “we might lose a generation if we don’t have face-to-face (classes).”

According to a report by the UN children’s agency UNICEF, the Philippines was among 17 countries globally where schools had remained completely shut throughout the pandemic, highlighting what it described as “18 months of lost learning.”

Benjo Basas, national chairperson of the Teachers’ Dignity Coalition, an umbrella organization of public-school teachers’ associations, told Arab News that the Philippines’ decision was “untimely and dangerous” given the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the country, and would only put further pressure on an overwhelmed healthcare system.

He said: “Our government has yet to fix its COVID-19 response, and the more than 20,000 new cases posted almost every day over the past week can attest to that. If in-person classes will push through, it’s like putting people at risk, especially the children.”

On Tuesday, Filipino health authorities reported 16,361 new COVID-19 cases, raising the total number of infections in the country to 2,401,916. Of those, 2,193,700 (91.3 percent) people had recovered, while 37,074 (1.54 percent) had died.

Basas pointed out that any resumption of face-to-face classes should be carefully planned, and the Department of Education must guarantee the safety of all participants before questioning who would be held accountable if someone gets infected at school.

“While we agree that there is no better alternative to face-to-face learning, the current pandemic situation does not allow for this. Education can be delayed. What is more important at the moment, is the lives and health of everyone,” he added.

During a press conference, Education Secretary Leonor Briones said the pilot scheme would cover 100 public schools and 20 private institutions, limiting class sizes to 12 learners in kindergarten, 16 in grades one to three, and 20 at senior high school level.

Meanwhile, the classes would be limited to three- to four-hour sessions based on “consent from parents and guardians. If there are changes in the risk assessment, then we will stop it,” she added.

As per guidelines released on Monday, public schools would need to pass a “readiness assessment” before reopening while private schools would be subject to a joint validation by the departments of education and health.

The guidance said: “We reiterate our demand for a science-based and evidence-based risk assessment for all participating schools. These shall help determine their present condition and urgent needs for the safe conduct of in-classroom learning, which the government shall immediately address.”

Some parents, however, have said they would refuse to allow their children to become part of an “experiment.”

Lee Reyes, 36, who has three children in grade school, told Arab News she would never risk the health and safety of her sons and daughter.

“For what reason? (To protect them from) COVID-19? If some adults, despite being vaccinated, still get infected, what about unvaccinated children? Also, kids are kids. Grown-ups tend to forget social distancing, and some even take off their masks. So, no. I would rather spend time helping my children learn their lessons from home,” she said.

Another mother, Lei, 50, also voiced concerns over the safety of her children, one at college and vaccinated, and the other in junior high school and unjabbed.

She said: “If my eldest child has to commute every day, there is a risk. Or even if I let her stay at the dorm. Although I know I need to teach her to be independent, now is not the best time during a pandemic and the flu season.”

In a Facebook post, parent Bella Mel, said: “Better safe than sorry. Because if our children get sick, it will only be them who will suffer. And there’s no Department of Education to help shoulder the hospital bills. So why push for it? Let’s just accept this is the new normal.”


At least 3 dead in apparent gas explosion in north China

Updated 15 sec ago

At least 3 dead in apparent gas explosion in north China

  • China is replacing decades-old infrastructure, with gas lines an especially dangerous part of the project
  • That blast appeared similar to one that occurred in the northeastern port of Qingdao in 2013
BEIJING: An apparent gas explosion gutted part of a high rise in northern China on Thursday morning, killing at least three people and injuring 30.
It occurred at a hotel in Shenyang, a city of more than 8 million people and a major industrial center that is in the process of renovating and replacing decaying gas lines, state media reported.
Images posted online by news website The Paper and state broadcaster CCTV showed a cloud of dust and debris blowing onto a busy street, leaving the bottom three floors of the building a gutted shell. Concrete blocks were piled in the street and a three-wheeled delivery vehicle lay on its side.
China is replacing decades-old infrastructure, with gas lines an especially dangerous part of the project. In June, a gas line explosion at a market and residential area in the central city of Shiyan killed 25.
That blast appeared similar to one that occurred in the northeastern port of Qingdao in 2013, in which 55 people were killed when underground pipelines ripped open following a leak.
Along with the deteriorations caused by age, weak adherence to safety standards, poor maintenance and corruption among enforcement bodies are all considered contributors to such disasters. Among China’s worst accidents was a massive 2015 explosion at a chemical warehouse in the port city of Tianjin that killed 173 people, most of them firefighters and police officers.

Flood deaths in India and Nepal cross 150

Updated 27 min 7 sec ago

Flood deaths in India and Nepal cross 150

  • In Nainital, a popular tourist destination in the Himalayan state, the town’s main lake broke its banks
  • India’s federal interior minister Amit Shah is set to survey affected areas on Thursday

NEW DELHI: More than 150 people have died in flooding across India and Nepal, officials said on Thursday, as unseasonably heavy rains across the region led to flash floods in several areas, stranding residents and destroying homes and infrastructure.
The north Indian state of Uttarakhand has been especially badly-hit, with 48 confirmed deaths, SA Murugesan, secretary of the state’s disaster management department told Reuters.
In Nainital, a popular tourist destination in the Himalayan state, the town’s main lake broke its banks, submerging the main thoroughfare and damaging bridges and rail tracks. And rescuers from India’s paramilitary National Disaster Response Force were evacuating residents from communities hit by landslides.
India’s federal interior minister Amit Shah is set to survey affected areas on Thursday.
Some 42 people have died in the last week in the southern Indian state of Kerala, according to a statement from the chief minister’s office.
In neighboring Nepal, at least 77 people have died.
India’s annual monsoon rains usually run from June to September.


Ukraine’s new daily coronavirus cases, deaths hit record

Updated 57 min 17 sec ago

Ukraine’s new daily coronavirus cases, deaths hit record

  • There were also 546 new deaths, surpassing the Oct. 19 record of 538
  • Ministry data showed 22,415 new cases over the past 24 hours

KYIV: Ukraine registered a record daily high of new coronavirus infections and related deaths, the health ministry said on Thursday.
Ministry data showed 22,415 new cases over the past 24 hours, exceeding the previous high of 20,341 on April 3.
There were also 546 new deaths, surpassing the Oct. 19 record of 538.


India administers its billionth COVID-19 jab

Updated 21 October 2021

India administers its billionth COVID-19 jab

  • Around three-quarters of adults in the country of 1.3 billion people has had one shot

NEW DELHI: India administered its billionth Covid-19 vaccine dose on Thursday, according to the health ministry, half a year after a devastating surge in cases brought the health system close to collapse.
According to the government, around three-quarters of adults in the country of 1.3 billion people has had one shot and around 30 percent are fully vaccinated.


Democracy languishes 30 years after Cambodia peace deal

Updated 21 October 2021

Democracy languishes 30 years after Cambodia peace deal

  • Hun Sen has amassed vast fortunes for his family, while almost 30 percent of Cambodians live barely above the poverty line, says Australian FM Gareth Evans, one of the architects of the peace deal

PHNOM PENH: Three decades after a landmark agreement ended years of bloody violence in Cambodia, its strongman ruler has crushed all opposition and is eyeing dynastic succession, shattering hopes for a democratic future.
The Paris Peace Agreements, signed on October 23, 1991, brought an end to nearly two decades of savage slaughter that began with the Khmer Rouge’s ascent to power in 1975.
The genocidal regime wiped out up to two million Cambodians through murder, starvation and overwork, before a Vietnamese invasion toppled the communist Khmer Rouge but triggered a civil war.
The Paris accords paved the way for Cambodia’s first democratic election in 1993 and effectively brought the Cold War in Asia to an end.
Aid from the West flowed and Cambodia became the poster child for post-conflict transition to democracy.
But the gains were short-lived and Premier Hun Sen, now in his fourth decade in power, has led a sustained crackdown on dissent.
“We did a great job on bringing peace, but blew it on democracy and human rights,” said former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans, one of the architects of the peace deal.

Evans said it was a mistake to agree to Hun Sen’s demands for a power-sharing arrangement after the 1993 election.
“Hun Sen has amassed vast fortunes for his family... while almost 30 percent of Cambodians live barely above the poverty line,” he said.
Rights groups say the veteran strongman maintains his iron grip on the country through a mix of violence, politically motivated prosecutions and corruption.
Exiled opposition figurehead Sam Rainsy said the international community lacked the will in 1993 to stand up to Hun Sen, who had been installed as ruler by the Vietnamese in 1985.
“The West had a tendency to wait and see and look for imagined gradual improvements in governance. That clearly did not work,” he told AFP.
“Cambodian politicians also have to accept some blame. Too many found it easier to accept a quiet but lucrative life in government than to say what they really thought.”
Human Rights Watch said that under Hun Sen, “even the patina of democracy and basic rights” has collapsed in recent years.
In 2017, the Supreme Court dissolved the main opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party.
And since the 2018 election — in which Hun Sen’s party won every seat in parliament — the authorities have arrested scores of former opposition members and rights campaigners.
Around 150 opposition figures and activists are facing a mass trial for treason and incitement charges, while the main opposition leader Kem Sokha is facing a separate treason trial.
Covid-19 has seen more curbs, with over 700 people arrested according to the UN rights body, which has warned that most may not have had a fair trial.
The spokesman for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party insisted it was the “will of the people” to have one party in parliament.
“We have peace, we have political stability, it reflects that we correctly implement the principles of democracy, and there is no abuse of human rights either,” Sok Eysan told AFP.

There has been some international censure — the European Union withdrew preferential trade rates last year over rights abuses — but the pressure shows little sign of translating into change.
“The reality is Cambodia has become a wholly-owned subsidiary of China, like Laos next door, and that means Hun Sen has been able to comfortably thumb his nose at any potential economic or political pressure from elsewhere,” Evans said.
Speculation has simmered that the 69-year-old Hun Sen is grooming his eldest son Hun Manet — a four-star general educated in Britain and the United States — to take over the leadership one day.
But in March, the veteran ruler said he would no longer set a date for his retirement, and activists have little hope that a change in leadership will bring a new direction.
“In Cambodia, we don’t have real democracy,” Batt Raksmey told AFP.
Her campaigner husband was jailed in May for allegedly inciting unrest after he raised environmental concerns about a lake on the edge of Phnom Penh.
“People have no freedom to speak their opinion,” she said. “When they speak out and criticize the government, they are arrested.”