In Pursuit of Transitional Vision Foreseeing face-to-face classes amid COVID-19 challenges
Hannah Jhanylle C. Po
The pursuit of high-quality, inclusive education, one of the most profoundly impacted aspects of the pandemic, is on the verge of another rebuilding. Following a year of synchronous and asynchronous distant learning classes, universities in low-risk areas are doubling down on compliance with the Commission on Higher Education’s (CHED) guidelines for conducting restricted face-to-face classes, with some undergoing pilot tests. However, the question remains whether or not the University of San Agustin is prepared to reopen its doors to students, faculty, and staff.
With 2.83 million cases reported in November 2021, the Philippines remains one of Asia’s most severely impacted countries by COVID-19. However, vaccination campaigns, mask use, and physical separation have all resulted in a decline in infection rates, allowing institutions and the economy to gradually reopen.
Under alert level three, the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF), in charge of the country’s COVID-19 response, approved restricted, face-to-face classes. CHED issued a similar announcement with the addition of a mandate to modify institution premises in accordance with the government agency’s standards, subject to 50% indoor capacity, fully vaccinated students, teaching and non-teaching staff and personnel, and no opposition from the affected LGUs.
Relative to this, the University of San Agustin updated its facilities based on the minimum standards on CHED’s guidelines and garnered permission for classes on-site for medical technology and nursing courses, given the necessity for practicum in the field.
Additionally, the Office of the President issued Memorandum Order No. 47, s.o. 2021, outlining contact tracing, containment, isolation, sanitation, and personal protective equipment (PPE) usage protocols for faculty, staff, and students to follow in order to minimize the possibility of infection and spread, at least on University property. Implementing a one-way traffic system, physical separation in classes, limiting the number of students or workers permitted in a facility, plastic barriers, and signage throughout the campus all contribute to this effort
“There are also guidelines from CHED and other regulatory bodies. We need to check on them from time to time and apply them to the university setting. [...] you may see handwashing stations, checking of temperatures, logging ins, quick response (QR) codes for contact tracing,” remarked Rev. Fr. Frederick C. Comendador, OSA, University president.
Similarly, he highlighted that the University has been holding frequent meetings to monitor the compliance of several policies designed to guarantee the health and safety of faculty, staff, and students. The crisis management team, founded in 2020, coordinates these preparations and initiatives in advance of the start of school.
ON WIDENING THE GATES
Since October 25 and November 6, respectively, the University has been conducting limited face-to-face classes for Medical Laboratory Science and Nursing programs and is now shifting its focus to courses of engineering and architecture programs. It has also been constructing temporary laboratories for the said courses targeted to finish by year-end.
“We are counter-checking programs that have been granted by CHED [and] checking the readiness of our laboratories. With the other requirements, I think we are now ready,” said Comendador. He also disclosed that what the administration has done is complementary with preparation for the face-to-face classes as the emergence of the pandemic calls for the need to retrofit the school’s facilities.
Relative to self-protection, the management also surveyed to assess the vaccination status of its students, teaching and non-teaching personnel, and administrators. Specifically, it inquired the brand, dates of administration of dosages, and the willingness of the survey taker to be vaccinated or get booster shots.
Furthermore, student leaders from the University of San Agustin Student Government have also taken moves in ensuring that the Augustinian student community is well-informed of the university’s developed policies in the virtual setup.
“We serve as the auxiliary arm of the University administration in reaching the students, specifically in the dissemination of the University vaccination survey form,” said Ruby Joy Dazo, the USA Student Government (USASG) Vice President for Internal Affairs and a Medical Laboratory Science student.
Dazo also noted that despite the varying effectiveness rates, vaccination serves as the greatest weapon and shield against the virus and the key to herd immunity.
“Herd immunity allows our bodies to become immune [or] resistant to certain diseases and viruses, [which means] it will slow the spread, and, eventually,
people will no longer be susceptible to the virus. It requires a large amount of the population, greater than the threshold, [for] our lives to [begin] going back to normal,” Dazo added.
Lyle Fatima Calagsing, a professor from the College of Commerce (COC), shared similar insights, citing that though individuals may have multiple reasons for vaccine hesitancy, one should acknowledge that vaccines allow one to protect the community.
“Having booster shots for all faculty members is important to comply with health and safety protocols and [for the overall] readiness of each department as well,” Calagsing expressed.
Moreover, other school offices and students also took part with the USA Medical Clinic, coordinating with the USA Red Cross Youth, releasing a similar form for the second installment of the #USAkaGugma Webinar Series entitled Vaccination 101 - Defeating COVID-19.
ILOILO CITY IN FOCUS
The Department of Health Western Visayas Center for Health Development (DOH WV CHD), in the last quarter of 2021, classified Western Visayas under alert level two. As of November 14, the locality recorded 6,617 active cases out of 144,472 cumulative ones, and of these cases, 3,636 were verified deaths.
Mass vaccination drives in various sites, one of which was the University, assisted in flattening the curve with 292,788 fully vaccinated individuals as of October 15 and 336,248 first dose receivers as of October 14.
Vaccination measures stemmed from more lenient protocols against the virus. They reopened various non-essential businesses such as personal care establishments, gyms, and movie houses, given the public observe physical distancing and wear masks outdoors. Additionally, in its quest to achieve alert level one, the city ramps effort to reach 50,000 vaccinations among minors by the end of November.
“We have vaccinated a total of 6,439 minors in Iloilo City vax centers. I call on parents, school heads, guardians, PTA officers, and barangay officials to get our minors vaccinated. We need to give them protection so that they will be ready for face-to-face education. The city will do its utmost to make vaccination easy for everyone,” voiced Mayor Jerry Treñas, Iloilo City mayor, in an interview with Rappler.
AUGUSTINIAN ON-SITE INSIGHTS
Challenging as the current system is, medical and practical programs such as BS Medical Laboratory Science and BS Nursing require laboratory lessons and the necessary skills, competencies, and abilities. Virtual laboratory sessions, virtual microscopes, and virtual practical exercises and tests had become the norm. With authorization granted by the University to conduct limited face-to-face seminars, various adjustments were made, including vaccinations and enrollment in health insurance programs such as PhilHealth.
Jose Perez Jr., RMT, MSMT, LPT, academic supervisor of the Medical Laboratory Science (MLS) Program, shared that the MLS internships will follow a cyclical pattern of five limited face-to-face meetings and ten virtual meetings.
“[The] flexibility of the schedule will be observed without compromising the Health and Safety Protocols of the Institution in complying [with] the CHED-DOH Joint Memorandum Circular (JMC) No. 2021 – 001,” Perez commented.
Meanwhile, Dazo stated that the continued limited face-to-face classes are optional, and students who do not choose to take the risk were offered to take a leave of absence, which may be reclaimed at any point if they choose to participate in the internship. In addition, the number of interns conducting laboratory activities at the University’s Clinical Laboratory was limited and supervised to ensure appropriate physical distance. In contrast, other requisites such as interviews were conducted online.
“A series of meetings were also [conducted] to properly orient the students and their parents of the changes made for the limited face-to-face classes. It is no longer the usual set-up that you stay next to your classmates and perform tasks together. This time, each intern works [on their own] in cubicles, and of course, carefully don PPEs [for protection] against COVID-19,” mentioned Dazo.
On the other hand, Calagsing disclosed that professors from other departments are waiting for advice from the Office [of the President] regarding the implementation of limited face-to-face classes.
Even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the University of San Agustin has been aiming to offer quality education in Virtus et Scientia to its students and provide facilities that are instruments for learning. As it faces challenges brought by the virus, it strives to protect all those under its wing – students, faculty, staff, administrators, and personnel.
“It cannot be denied that there is no 100 percent assurance in whatever we do, especially since we are not creating a bubble around the University. While we might be able to protect everybody while inside the campus, every time a student or teacher leaves the premises, that is another story,” Comendador opined.
Commuting through public transit, wandering in regions with unintentionally infected passers-by, infection from frontliner relatives, and unreported cases are all unpredictable but likely elements to consider. Nonetheless, Comemdador maintained his confidence in the University’s ability to implement safety measures appropriate for the campus’s size that would safeguard students and faculty and reduce infection rates in the event that someone contracted the virus.
Sharing the same desire for normalcy, Dazo urged the Augustinian community to adhere to the University’s three core values, Unitas, Veritas, and Caritas, in its duties to society.
“Like St. Augustine, let us be proactive in searching for the truth, the facts, and the real benefit of having vaccinated. Not getting vaccinated affects everyone - without enough numbers of the population becoming vaccinated, it is impossible to reach ‘herd immunity,’ and that means the pandemic could continue indefinitely,” Dazo advocated.
After nearly two years of synchronous, asynchronous, and modular classes, the idea of pursuing face-to-face classes amid the pandemic is a source of contention, with students, teachers, staff, and administrators weighing the advantages and disadvantages and expressing diverse perspectives. Finally, whether the University becomes ready or continues to be uncertain in its pursuit of face-to-face education is contingent upon the participation and willingness of all Augustinians.
Published: April 25, 2022