EDITORIAL: Ready or not

The Editorial Desk in Manila/Philippine Daily Inquirer

Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - Tomorrow morning, alarm clocks will rouse millions of young Filipinos to meet what lies at the end of every child's summer: the opening of classes. And in a country where education is considered a national priority, this has never been a small undertaking.

This year's opening of public schools happens to be the largest ever, with some 21 million elementary and high school students expected to troop to classrooms nationwide. With one million more students enrolled this year compared to last year, the Department of Education has tried to make sure that the first day of school goes off without a hitch.

For this purpose, DepEd has organized Oplan Balik Eskwela, which, as Education Secretary Armin Luistro stated in a memorandum sent to all school officials, "aims to address the problems commonly encountered during this period, particularly to assure that students are properly enrolled and able to attend school on the first day of classes."

DepEd has set up a command center in its Pasig City offices to monitor the situation as well as an interagency task force to make sure that no stone is left unturned. The task force includes everyone from the Philippine National Police and the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority to the Pagasa weather bureau.

With the MMDA assigned to deal with the likely traffic congestion that greets the yearly school opening, Pagasa's inclusion in the task force is spot-on considering that the year's first tropical storm, "Ambo," made its presence felt right before D-Day. This year also, DepEd has taken the initiative and issued new guidelines regarding the suspension of classes in case of inclement weather.

But the weather is far from the only challenge facing DepEd as public schools all over the country reopen their doors.

The traditional problems remain, foremost among which is a continuing lack of teachers, which has for decades been the result of dismally low wages, among other things. To help cash-strapped households continue to put their children through school, DepEd has announced that no extracurricular fees would be charged in public schools from kindergarten to the fourth grade. (It has also banned teachers and school officials from conducting business in the classrooms.) But clearly the most significant problem is the lack of classrooms. DepEd may be ready to start classes in 45,000 public schools nationwide, but that still leaves a mind-boggling shortage of 60,000 classrooms.

President Aquino has promised that this shortfall will be filled by 2013, with the largest portion of the national budget (238.8 billion pesos or US$5.4 billion) dedicated to education. "[Aside] from the more than 10,000 classrooms that we have already built, there are an estimated 30,000 classrooms more that we will build this year with the participation of various sectors," the President said.

Crucial to the success of DepEd's plans are the activities of the multisectoral Brigada Eskwela movement, in which the government and the private sector partnered to repair and spruce up the 45,000 public schools in time for tomorrow's rush. Now on its ninth year, the movement had businessmen, local officials, students and teachers joining forces to make sure that the classrooms would be usable. "If the partnership between the private sector and the government continues, by 2013 every student will get a quality education inside a quality classroom," Mr. Aquino said.

Under the "National Schools Maintenance Week," this year's Brigada Eskwela ran from May 21 to 26 and featured the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) as international partner. Unicef is helping provide free hand-washing facilities in the schools, operating on the sad fact that Filipino students suffer from a range of ailments that can easily be solved by access to clean water. Thus has Brigada Eskwela 2012 placed emphasis on proper hygiene and sanitation: "This is where personal hygiene is reinforced among our students, which can in turn help develop their self-esteem," Luistro said.

Just as children need to cooperate with their parents to make sure that their first day of school is a success, so too does DepEd need the cooperation of government agencies and the private sector to ensure that tomorrow and the days thereafter would encounter only minimal snags. Everyone should step up to the plate to accomplish this task.

Here's another public-private partnership to push-for long-term success.