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Another sacrifice

Publication Date : 02-06-2014


Millions of students in the Philippines' public school system go back to school today; for thousands in “Yolanda”-affected areas, this means reporting to makeshift classrooms or “temporary learning spaces.” The main reason for the delay: The new school buildings to be constructed must follow a new, “calamity-resilient” design.

This seems like another example of the Aquino administration’s lack of a sense of urgency in the face of natural or manmade crises. After all, it has been almost seven months since the supertyphoon slammed into the central Philippines. But in an imperfect world, the delay may actually end up saving an untold number of lives.

It is truly unfortunate that many students will be forced to endure more hardship, perhaps for the entire semester, before they can use the new classrooms. Some of them will return to damaged schools and unrepaired classrooms today; others will proceed to tents or plywood-and-corrugated-iron structures. It will be a few more months, at the earliest, before every student in the Yolanda-affected areas will be able to sit inside a proper classroom.

The scale of the destruction caused by the strongest storm ever to make landfall in recorded history can be seen in the damage sustained by schools. An assessment by the Department of Education found over 2,300 classrooms totally destroyed and almost 18,000 classrooms partially damaged in some 2,990 schools spread through five regions.

Eastern Visayas carried the brunt, with some 970 classrooms damaged in Tacloban City and over 7,200 classrooms in Leyte. Information from the DepEd’s Eastern Visayas office shows that over 10,000 classrooms are now under repair or construction; the shortage in classrooms would be partially met with the setting up of over 1,800 makeshift structures and almost 2,500 tents.

But was this stopgap measure of constructing thousands of temporary learning spaces really necessary?  Why not rebuild the needed classrooms right away?

The principle of “building back better” is simple but potentially life-changing. If it is better to assume that weather disturbances of Yolanda’s scale will happen more often, then it is better to build new school buildings and classrooms that can survive future Yolandas (or Bohol-type earthquakes).

We do not know why it was only in April when the DepEd and the Department of Public Works and Highways agreed on the final design, or whether it was even humanly possible and politically feasible to speed up the planning and design process. But who can argue with the concept of calamity-resilient buildings?

Yvonne Chua of Vera Files summarizes the department’s case: “To make each building more resilient to earthquakes, the DepEd is banking on a bigger footing or base and thicker beams and columns. It now requires a tie beam even for a single-story school. The horizontal beam connects several columns to make the structure stable. The DepEd’s answer to strong typhoons is a combination of steel truss roofing, roof framing support that uses J-bolts, thicker roofing sheets and ridge roll, thicker and more reinforcing bars or rebars for roof beams, and a drop ceiling.”

The new design means higher costs. A one-story structure that was estimated to cost 780,000 pesos (US$17,826.5) will now cost about 1 million pesos . Since the improvements in calamity resilience will be largely invisible to the casual observer, the redesign creates an additional problem, that of potential corruption by cheating on the building specifications.

“Monitoring is key,” said Annabelle Pangan, the engineer of the DepEd’s physical facilities and schools engineering division.

“The construction should start in a month or so because once they [DepEd’s division offices] award the contract, they should already start,” Education Undersecretary Francisco Varela told reporters. With construction needing from 60 to 90 days, the earliest these new classrooms can be used will be toward the end of the first semester.

In the meantime, the students making do inside those tents and makeshift structures will have to contend with the heat and the rains. An engaged civil society can help make certain their additional sacrifice will be worth it.


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