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Philippines Puts Schools on ‘Health Break’ as Covid Cases Soar

MANILA — Teachers and students in the Philippine capital are being placed on what officials describe as a weeklong “health break” to recover from Covid or care for loved ones infected with the virus as the country experiences a record number of cases fueled by the rapidly spreading Omicron variant.

And on Friday, the country’s Education Department expanded on that move by announcing that primary schools in five highly urbanized provinces south of the capital, Manila, were being closed until the end of the month.

“The city of Manila is declaring no classes at all levels, private and public school,” Mayor Francisco Domagoso said on Thursday, adding that teachers and students would have a week “to rest and hopefully recover” or give them a breather as they care for their loved ones.

“The parents’ anxiety level for their kids are increasing,” he said, and “this goes as well for the teacher.”

The measure may seem less like a breather for parents, who have already had to help their children through one of the world’s longest periods of classroom closures. Schools reopened in November in areas of the country where virus transmission rates were low after well over a year of virtual lessons, but officials said the Omicron variant had forced a rethinking of the loosening in restrictions.

The country’s Health Department reported 37,027 new cases on Friday — a record high that officials blamed on the Omicron variant. The figure brings to 3.1 million the total number of virus cases during the pandemic, while nearly 53,000 people have died.

A recent survey conducted by the Alliance of Concerned Teachers, a group that represents teachers and educators in the House of Representatives, found that 50 percent of its members in Manila had reported being sick with flu-like symptoms while still carrying out teaching duties.

The government on Friday extended its coronavirus restrictions in Manila and other provinces until the end of the month. Those measures include capacity limits for restaurants, malls, parks, sports venues, fitness studious, cinemas, as well as exhibitions and social events. Children under 18 are also barred from leaving their homes in much of the country.

“Since the Omicron variant was detected in the country, the government has been closely monitoring Covid-19 cases as we recognize that this variant, given its characteristics, would most likely lead to a rise in the number of Covid cases, just as it has in other countries,” Karlo Nograles, a presidential spokesman, told a news briefing.

“I think it is clear that this variant is more transmissible,” he said, though he stressed that because of the government’s aggressive vaccination drive, infected people were not experiencing severe illness.

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