The Department of Health (DoH) was reported to have removed the requirement for college and university students to be vaccinated for COVID-19 prior to attending face-to-face classes. Although, vaccination remains highly recommended. However, lack of it should not prevent a college or university student from attending classes in person.
“The benefits of in-person and face-to-face schooling now outweigh the risk of COVID-19 infections,” DoH officer-in-charge Maria Rosario Vergeire was quoted in a Star report. She added, “The DoH will keep working with CHED and our colleges and universities to ensure safe higher education.”
Other than the Philippines, countries that no longer require proof of vaccination for university students are Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, and Singapore. In supporting the Commission on Higher Education’s updated guidelines for full face-to-face classes, DoH noted “the high COVID-19 vaccination coverage in Philippine higher education, with 77% of students and 90% of [school] personnel already fully vaccinated against the virus.”
But Ms. Vergeire added that “even as proof of vaccination is no longer needed, vaccination and boosters for all eligible individuals is still strongly recommended… Let us keep the wall of immunity strong.” To date, vaccine boosters are being made available to all minors and adults who want them, while a second booster is also available for seniors and those who are immunocompromised.
Meantime, new generation vaccines are being produced abroad, developed to combat newly emerged variants of the highly infectious COVID-19. However, it remains uncertain whether the government will centralize and pay for the procurement of these new booster shots, or if these new vaccines will be made available to the public at their own expense.
Personally, I am uncomfortable with the DoH decision to no longer require proof of vaccination for older students. The pandemic is not yet over. And given the high vaccination coverage of the higher education sector, anyway, then why bother to lift the requirement? After all, vaccination remains highly recommended. Lifting the requirement may just have the opposite effect.
Moreover, if the intent of lifting the requirement is to promote greater access to higher education, then as long as the unvaccinated will be given alternative modes of attending classes, like online, then access should not be an issue. To me, vaccination is not the issue, but mandating class attendance then limiting the options to in-person or face-to-face modes.
I can understand that requiring proof of vaccination makes attending classes in person “exclusive” to those who have been vaccinated, to the detriment of those who have not been vaccinated for one reason or the other. In short, proof of vaccination limits access to higher education, especially if online alternatives are set aside.
However, I also believe that the right to higher education can be impeded by the vaccination requirement only if alternatives will not be made available to those who want or need them. In fact, requiring or mandating face-to-face classes — even for those unvaccinated — is also a form of exclusion particularly for those who lack the means or resources to attend school in person.
Cases in point are those with disabilities or who are immunocompromised. Given the present state of public transportation, amidst the pandemic, requiring them to attend classes in person or face-to-face is a form of exclusion or a limitation to access, regardless of their vaccination status. And for the immunocompromised, to be forced to be around unvaccinated students in school even poses a significant risk to their health.
Again, to me, proof of vaccination is not the real issue, but the decision to require physical class attendance and to limit access to higher education to only in-person or face-to-face modes. More worrisome is that by doing this with higher education institutions now, then primary and secondary educational institutions are sure to follow.
Just yesterday, my son’s high school informed the student body of the possibility of full-time face-to-face classes being required for all by November. I am not too worried for my son since he has been vaccinated and boosted. And that, for now, proof of vaccination remains a requirement for those who have opted for “blended” learning — attending classes in person twice weekly.
Moreover, the school kept full online learning available to students who opted for such, whether for health or financial or personal reasons: some students have had to move to the province, but wished to finish their education in the same school; financially constrained families find it more economical to do school from home; or, some parents are still uncomfortable with face-to-face classes since their children are immunocompromised.
In this line, the school also committed that for those who have opted for full online learning for the year, they can remain in their chosen learning modality for the entire year even if full-time face-to-face classes restart by November. This is given that those who opted for pure or full online may have very good reasons or justifications for doing so, and to change modalities midstream may be improbable for them. For sure, any change will be highly disruptive, to say the least, particularly for those who have limited resources, mobility, or access.
Bottomline, it is alright to remove the requirement for proof of vaccination for all students, whether primary, secondary, or tertiary level. However, for the remainder of this school year at least, full-time in-person or face-to-face classes should not be mandated for all. Alternatives to in-person classes should still be made available to students and their parents, while the pandemic is ongoing and the state of public health emergency remains.
It should be the government’s burden and obligation to look for ways and means to ensure students’ access to education, from basic to higher education, and to accommodate those who are unvaccinated, immunocompromised, or with disability by providing them alternatives to in-person schooling while the threat of COVID-19 exists.
To simply mandate or require full-time in-person schooling by November, or to go back to the way things were pre-pandemic, is the lazy solution to limitations to access to education. COVID-19 had forced us to adopt more creative approaches in educating our children. Some of these approaches worked, some did not. We should learn from our mistakes and move on. To simply go back to the old system of schooling, which was obviously broken anyway, is not the way forward.
Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippine Press Council