Manila (CNN Philippines Life, September 8) — Ever since the pandemic started, schools around the country have entered the remote learning setup. But as other countries have decided to reopen schools a year after, the Philippines remains one of five countries around the world that still hasn’t made that decision.
Parents, students, and teachers are appealing that the government reconsider the return to face-to-face classes, especially after the past year exposed difficulties for them — including increased expenses, mental health concerns, and dropout rates. One such group calling for this change is Aral Pilipinas.
Aral Pilipinas is a group of education practitioners, parents, students, and development workers who advocate for the continuity of education in times of crises. Their call: allow limited face-to-face classes in low-risk areas for school year 2021-2022.
Of the many organizations under Aral Pilipinas, one of them is the Samahan ng Nagkakaisang Pamilya ng Pantawid (SNPP), an association of parent leaders enrolled under the government’s Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program, which provides conditional cash grants for health and education to the poorest of the poor. The country’s most vulnerable families have been rendered even more vulnerable because of the changes in the education of their children.
A problem of access
One such parent is Novelardo Diacamos Jr. from Cebu. With two children still in school, he shared that remote learning has been difficult because of finances and technology needed.
“Pag kailangan ng online tapos wala load, [maghahanap] ka pa na pang load. Minsan hirap nga [maghanap] ng pang load, iisa lang ang cellphone na ginagamit,” Diacamos says.
The amount that these parents are struggling to raise? ₱50 worth of load daily, from Monday to Friday. This is on top of the tuition fee, internet connection, electricity bills, and learning equipment needed (following the minimum specs set by the Department of Education (DepEd) would set you back by at least ₱20,000).
“Pwede na siguro ₱30-₱50 bawat araw o 1GB per day lang tapos mga three to four hours nila gagamitin. Walang load Saturday at Sunday; weekdays lang meron,” Diacamos adds. “Dito sa Cebu, estimate ko lang 5,000 mahigit [na estudyante sa] whole district [ang dapat] bigyan ng load subsidy. Hindi pa sila lugi dyan, kahit pang CSR lang ng bawat negosyante.”
Annabelle Luna, a parent from Manila, shares a similar struggle. She adds that the pandemic has affected her husband’s employment, thus making it even more difficult to pay for the Wi-Fi vouchers and gadgets required for their children to attend online classes. They even had to sacrifice paying for food and utilities just to keep their three kids in school.
“Sa part ko [bilang] nanay, ang hirap din mag adjust ng budget kasi nga po walang maayos na pasok ang mister ko simula ng pandemya… Nagpahiram ng isang tablet si Yorme Isko [Manila Mayor Isko Moreno] pero ‘di po sapat kaya no choice kundi gumawa ng paraan mabigyan sila ng cellphone for online classes po nila,” Luna says. “So doon adjust ng budget, apektado yung para sa food at bills.”
According to the Philippine Business for Education, a nonprofit formed by the country’s top CEOs as a response to the need for education and economic alignment, these sentiments are reflected across the country as a problem of accessibility. PBEd Communications Manager Marie Adelle Banta cites the Pulse Asia 2021 survey on distance learning.
“Not all students have access to resources that will allow them to fully participate in class,” Banta says. “Blended learning requires gadgets and internet connectivity. With the economy in recession and high unemployment rate, many households are still scrambling for resources to provide these learning requirements for their children. Yet, one out of four parents say that they think their children are not learning in the current setup.”
“We aren’t learning”
Many parents and children feel they aren’t learning with the remote setup, affecting their confidence and mental health. Luna shares that her children, who used to take initiative in preparing for school, have altogether lost interest in their classes after the shift in system.
“Simula kasi ng remote learning ay maaga pa lang ay mga nakasimangot na sila habang nagko-connect, may time na stress na stress sila dahil di maunawaan ang sinasabi ng teacher kasi choppy,” Luna says. “Yung behavior nila medyo apektado kasi nga po iritable sila.”
This uncertainty in the setup of remote classes has led to students losing their interest in school. Unreliable internet connections, lack of teacher feedback on take-home modules, and the blurring of lines between home life and school life: these combined, have led to a frustrating school year for many.
For Diacamos, he shares that there are too many distractions at home, from house chores to neighbors popping in, leaving his children unfocused. For the Luna household on the other hand, the limited space at home has pushed her children to have online classes simultaneously, and this cacophony of voices was made even worse by noises coming from the neighborhood.
Parents cannot replace teachers
Parents are doing their best to co-teach their children alongside teachers. Many parents say they have already forgotten their school lessons, but this is an even more difficult task for parents who have not finished schooling in the first place.
“Ang pinaka-challenging para sa akin ay parang bumalik ka din sa pag aaral. Minsan hindi mo alam ang sagot, pikitmata na lang din,” Dicamos says. “Tapos minsan, para lang masagutan yung module, ikaw na lang ang sasagot kahit mahirap ang pagintindi.”
“Kahit na magshift sila sa module, mas lalong problematic kasi walang teacher na mag-guide para mas madaling sagutan,” Luna says. “Once alam ko yung question, yun ipinapaliwanag ko. Pero mas maraming limot ko na rin yung mga dapat isagot.”
Beyond tutoring, parents also find themselves having to fill the shoes of teachers admin-wise. This includes scheduling their children’s classes, arranging for module pick-ups, and managing a classroom at home — tasks which they did not have to worry about pre-pandemic.
The current setup is difficult not only for parents, but for teachers as well.
“PBEd calls for the immediate and safe resumption of face-to-face classes, in consideration of public health standards,” Banta says. “But foremost, we should prioritize teachers and teaching support staff in the vaccination programs of the government.”
Pilot run around the corner?
There have been several attempts at pushing for a trial of face-to-face classes in the lead-up to the opening of classes this month, but President Rodrigo Duterte has denied all proposals so far because of the threat of COVID-19 transmission.
But DepEd, together with the Department of Health, is trying to propose anew, a few days before school starts on Sept. 13. Their joint issuance recommends a dry run of limited in-person classes in 120 schools, 20 of which have been added to accommodate private schools. The issuance follows Senate pressure on DepEd to strengthen lobbying for in-person classes, and it has so far been approved by the Inter-Agency Task Force for COVID-19.
The proposal will be tackled at the next Cabinet meeting, and awaits President Duterte’s verdict. And according to Presidential Spokesperson Roque, there is a likelihood that the President may approve the proposal.
“Now, ang initial reaction ng Presidente, kung talagang pilot at sa mga areas na mababa talaga ang kaso, he may allow it,” Roque says. “Pero dapat pilot muna and areas na mababa talaga ang kaso.”
DepEd Undersecretary Nepomuceno Malaluan says that should President Duterte approve the pilot run, teachers who will be part of the chosen 120 schools will be vaccinated.
"May kasunduan with the Department of Health na ‘yung mga nasa schools na kalahok dito sa pilot face-to-face ay kahit hindi nasa priority areas ay bibigyan ng consideration para sa vaccination," Malaluan said during a virtual briefing.
To further answer the fears regarding virus transmission, Banta shares that local studies have shown it’s possible to reopen without endangering the students and the community at large.
“The Philippine Pediatric Society backed a global study that the reopening of schools has not been associated with an increase in COVID-19 infection rates in the community,” Banta says. “When transmission in communities is low, we don’t see spikes of cases in schools. Layers of risk mitigation activities can be implemented to further reduce school transmission.”
These interventions include:
• at the home level: personal and household health monitoring;
• at the school level: water, sanitation, hygiene facilities, proper ventilation, universal wearing of face masks, safe distancing, assignment of response personnel;
• at the community level: contact tracing, safe transportation, and testing
“A safe return to face-to-face classes is possible but requires political will and strong follow through from the government. The individual, family, and societal costs of learning losses will be too difficult to carry and will impact the future generation,” Banta says.