Elle Guison

Published: April 4, 2024

QUEZON CITY, Philippines – Nearly 4,000 schools in the Philippines have suspended classes this week, with some shifting to online classes, as cities continue to experience extreme heat exacerbated by the El Niño phenomenon. The Philippine Department of Education (DepEd) said that this has affected over 1.3 million learners.

While remote learning has been implemented to address the health risks posed by the extreme heat, teachers’ organizations said this underscores the need to ensure a safe and healthy learning environment.

In Quezon City, at least 156 public elementary and secondary schools, as well as daycare centers and Alternative Learning Systems, were advised to suspend face-to-face classes on April 2 due to heat index levels reaching 41°C.

The heat index is the average temperature of how hot it really feels to a person. Heat index levels of 33 to 41°C are classified under “extreme caution” and may cause heat cramps and heat exhaustion, with continuing activity possibly leading to heat stroke.

“My arms feel so sticky and sweaty because of how hot it is inside our classroom. I don’t sweat a lot on days with normal temperatures,” Jerson Yago, a Grade 11 student at San Francisco High School in Quezon City, said in Filipino.

According to him, they only use electric fans in their classrooms; they do not have air conditioners that could help cool down the learning spaces.

Like other learning institutions in the city, San Francisco High School has switched to a remote learning setup due to the heat.

Philippine Vice President and DepEd Secretary Sara Duterte advised the shift to blended learning on April 1.

She cited an existing order from DepEd allowing more than 47,000 schools nationwide to implement distance learning if weather problems arise, including extreme heat. This advisory was reiterated by the agency on April 4 emphasizing the importance of local decision-making in these critical conditions.

Braving the heat, Los Baños Senior High School students continue their on-site classes. (Dan Calatcat)

This was not the first time that classes have shifted remotely due to extreme heat levels. In March and April 2023, some schools suspended their on-site classes after multiple students were hospitalized due to heat exhaustion.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) declared 2023 the hottest year on record, highlighting unprecedented rises in greenhouse gas levels, surface temperatures, and oceanic changes.

This year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) marked February 2024 as the warmest February ever, continuing a nine-month streak of record temperatures.

NOAA forecasts a 45% likelihood that 2024 will eclipse previous records, ranking it as the hottest year in their 175-year history, with a 99% chance it will be among the top five warmest years.

‘Shorten classes, avoid peak hours’

A local teachers’ group, Teachers’ Dignity Coalition suggested schools shorten class durations and allow teachers and learners to wear more comfortable clothing to reduce the heat’s impact.

A Metro Manila survey conducted by another teacher’s group, the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT) revealed teachers and students experience dizziness and headaches due to the extreme heat.

The findings also indicated that 87% of students struggle with pre-existing conditions like allergies and asthma, while 26% of teachers suffer from hypertension, underlining the urgent need for responsive measures.

“The lack of health facilities and personnel in schools is a big issue in responding to this situation while the ventilation inside the classrooms remains poor and children are crowded due to large class sizes,” ACT NCR Union President Ruby Bernardo said in Filipino.

Students at an elementary school in Bulacan beat the heat with a classroom electric fan. (Paul John Domalaon/ Save the Children)

The survey also found that 46% of classrooms have just one or two electric fans, pointing to insufficient ventilation against rising heat.

When asked about initiatives implemented by the schools to combat the heat, Jerson Yago’s father, Emerson, mentioned the Parent-Teacher Association’s efforts to supply classrooms with electric fans. He highlighted, however, that such contributions are voluntary, recognizing that not all parents can afford to financially support these initiatives.

“I hope that DepEd or public schools may receive enough budget to improve the school and its classrooms for a more conducive learning environment for the students,” Yago said in Filipino.

Despite receiving the largest portion of the Philippines’ national budget for 2024, the Education Department acknowledges that these funds are still insufficient to cover all the projects needed to enhance the country’s basic education system.

Advocates are now pushing for more solutions and climate action to address the issue.

“We need to see urgent action now to limit warming to a maximum of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Failing to do this will have dramatic consequences for children’s health, safety, and wellbeing,” Atty. Alberto Muyot, CEO of Save the Children Philippines, said.