Duque contradicts Duterte: 'Safe' to reopen classes in August

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, May 26) — Health Secretary Franciso Duque III on Tuesday supported the reopening of classes in August despite the absence of a vaccine against coronavirus, in contrast to an earlier pronouncement of President Rodrigo Duterte.

"Sa ngayon, tingin namin ay ligtas naman po kung bubuksan natin ang klase by ‪August 24‬," he said during a virtual Senate hearing.

[Translation: For now, our view is that it's safe for classes to open by ‪August 24.‬]

Duque's statement came a day after Duterte said he did not approve of the opening of school classes until there was an available vaccine against the coronavirus disease.

Duque said it is safe to start classes amid the COVID-19 crisis as long as minimum health standards, such as physical distancing, wearing of face masks, and disinfecting of classrooms, will be observed.

He said the Department of Education has "many measures in place" to ensure the safety of students should they go back to school ‪on August 24‬ — the date set by Education Secretary Leonor Briones.

"We hope the vaccines will be available at the soonest possible time. But habang wala pa, siguraduhin lang natin ang minimum health standards are met to mitigate the risks to our school children," he added.

[Translation: We are hoping the vaccine becomes at the soonest possible time. But while it is not yet available, we should ensure minimum health standards are met to mitigate the risks to our school children.]

The health chief also said that DOH continues to review data in barangays, saying that schools located in areas with a number of COVID-19 cases also have to undergo localized quarantine.

But the Palace stood its ground, saying face-to-face classes will remain suspended until a vaccine becomes available and community quarantine restrictions are lifted in the area.

"Habang wala pang bakuna at habang wala pa tayo sa new normal — 'yung wala na pong community quarantine —hindi pa rin po tayo magkakaroon ng face-to-face na mga klase," Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said in a virtual press briefing on Tuesday.

[Translation: While there is no vaccine and community quarantine is lifted, we cannot hold face-to-face classes.]

The Department of Health maintained that the stand of Health Secretary Francisco Duque does not contradict what the President said.

"Tama sinabi ng ating Presidente na hindi niya hahayaang magbukas ang klase sa darating na pasukan hanggang wala pang bakuna sa COVID-19," Health Spokesperson Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said in a media briefing Tuesday afternoon. "Ito rin ang position ni Secretary Duque nang sabihin it is safe to open classes this August as long as minimum health standards are met. Hindi po ito magkasalungat."

[Translation: Our President was right when he said he will not allow class to open in the future while there is no COVID-19 vaccine. This is also the position of Secretary Duque when he said it would be safe to open classes this August as long as minimum health standards are met. These are not contradictory.]

Vergeire clarified that schools would only be allowed to open if they meet the minimum health standards set by authorities.

"Ngunit kung hindi natin mapapanatili na safe ang ating paaralan because we do not observe the health standards or base sa ating assessment na it will be unsafe, hindi natin bubuksan ang mga paaralan hanggang wala pang bakuna laban sa virus," Vergeire said.

[Translation: But if we cannot guarantee that the school is safe because we do not observe the health standards or based on our assessment, it will be unsafe, we will not open the schools while there is no vaccine against the virus.]

All parts of the country remain under varying degrees of community quarantine depending on the number of COVID-19 cases. There are four levels of community quarantine — enhanced community quarantine (ECQ), modified ECQ, general community quarantine (GCQ), and modified GCQ. Once community lockdowns are lifted, the country will remain under the "new normal" or continual observing minimum health standards.

Duque also backed the proposal of DepEd to explore online learning after Briones said the resumption of classes will not require full physical attendance of students, stressing that online learning is still a viable option.

However, Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said shifting to e-learning is unrealistic as majority of the country's population does not have access to internet.

"The internet in the country remains the most expensive yet the slowest among Asian countries. I do not see how virtual classes being proposed by the DepEd can be effectively implemented across all sectors. The poor will be at a disadvantage here," he said in a statement.