Saving Our Schools: How to Make Education Work during the Pandemic

It’s the time of the year when streets and beaches are lined with students taking their summer break from another year of schooling — or would have been, if not for the coronavirus pandemic.

With the resurgence of COVID-19 cases especially in the country’s capital and surrounding areas, authorities have had to implement stricter protocols. With the way things are going, plans of restarting face-to-face classes are once again halted. It looks like Filipino students would have to learn remotely a little while longer.

Not like the Philippine education system pre pandemic was exemplary to begin with. In an interview with COMMONER, Edelweiss Villa de Gracia, alumni ambassador of Teach for the Philippines, shared some of the challenges she regularly faces when it comes to facilitating learning in the new normal. She told us the story of John Luis, one of her students, who was having a difficult time with his schooling. “I consulted John Luis’ adviser about his attendance and performance in class. I found out that aside from school, John Luis had to work to help support his family. Learning at home was also a challenge for him because both his parents are also nonreaders,” she said.

These difficulties not only apply to John Luis but to many other Filipino students and teachers as well. And socioeconomic factors and limited parental support are just some of the challenges she faces as a public school teacher.

How COVID-19 Aggravated These Challenges

The reality of the pandemic has only made our country’s educational goals more unattainable. For one, even a year into lockdown, many students and teachers are still struggling to adjust to the virtual setup. Learning remotely requires equipment inaccessible to many, with only 27 percent of lower middle–income households and 1 percent of poor households having computers. Parents are also forced to become teachers to their children too young to learn on their own. This becomes especially tiresome for those who are simultaneously working full-time jobs. Meanwhile, hiring a tutor who can facilitate the child’s learning can be too expensive to include in the family budget.

With the unemployment rate in the country going through the roof since the pandemic’s onset, paying for tuition fees and dedicating money for school-related expenses is becoming even more of a burden for Filipino families. In April of 2020, unemployment rose to 17.7 percent. This rate has gone down to 8.8 percent by February, but it still translates to about 4.2 million unemployed Filipinos, on top of those suffering from a no-work-no-pay setup. The widespread unemployment combined with the threat of kids losing scholarship grants due to budget cuts spells disaster for our already crippled education system.

These challenges have forced around 3 million students to take a “gap year” for the school year of 2020–2021. To put this in perspective, this number is almost equal Quezon City’s current population of 2.94 million.

Apart from the low enrollment turnout, there’s also the quality of education to worry about. Educational psychologist Dr. Lizamarie Campoamor-Olegario shared in an interview the results of a recent nationwide research on distance learning for grades 4 to 10 students, teachers, and parents. According to the study, 54 percent of the teachers had one to ten students experiencing difficulties in catching up with lessons. This, of course, implies a rise in the number of poorly performing students.

In November 2020, many students called for a national academic break in solidarity with those who could not afford to study. However, further delaying the opening of classes may worsen the Philippine economy since having a less skilled labor force can greatly affect quality of work and cause larger losses in lifetime earnings — hence the dilemma of whether or not to resume face-to-face classes despite the high number of positive COVID-19 cases.

Blended Learning: A Middleground?

Blended learning is the combination of face-to-face classes and distance learning. Here, printed educational materials are delivered in person to learners who don’t have access to the internet. These modules can be accessed through other mediums like radio and TV. Unfortunately, many public school teachers and students still find these content delivery modes challenging. In fact, 89 percent of Filipino families find blended learning difficult according to the Social Weather Stations (SWS) survey.

Villa de Gracia noted that teachers have had to convert lesson plans to self-learning modules that should contain a guide not only for students but also for parents who are expected to assist their children at home.

When asked if the Philippines is ready for blended learning, she said, “Are we ready for it? Not yet, but we are certainly preparing for it. I believe readiness does not (and should not) rely on one government agency or department. Readiness for the new normal of schooling requires support from the community, industries, as well as the public and private sectors.”

Saving our education system can very well be an opportunity to strengthen our remote learning system, which can be beneficial even post-pandemic. In this country, there is no shortage of emergencies that might force the use of distance learning, such as typhoons or earthquakes.

Dr. Campoamor-Olegario sees an opportunity in tapping television stations to air educational material. “Imagine if the children get inputs from educational TV in sync with the modules. There would be less difficulty in understanding the concepts,” she says. Another thing worth considering is creating educational materials that don’t require internet connectivity for more flexible accessibility. The Gambia, for example, uses solar-powered radios for remote learning in communities that don’t have electricity.

What Other Countries Are Doing

The World Bank suggests some solutions to distance learning already being done by other countries.

In Cambodia, they launched the Think! Think! educational program that provides free online lessons to students. It consists of thousands of puzzle games to help increase children’s IQ and social skills, via easily accessible online platforms like the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sports’s mobile app and social media pages. Those without access to the internet will also soon be able to watch it once it gets launched on Satellite Decho TV (DTV).

In Poland, the government set up a dedicated Minecraft server for homebound students. Called the Grarantanna initiative, it contains various educational activities including historical quizzes, puzzles, and role-playing game sessions. Students can also build replicas of landmarks on the said server.

In Singapore, the government has ensured that licenses to applications like Zoom and Microsoft Teams are readily available to teachers and students. Policies have also remained student-centric, with the availability of alternative learning plans for students who couldn’t come to class; instead of catching up with classmates, students have the option to instead arrange a session to receive the learning content. Those who don’t have the equipment can also borrow laptops, making distance learning accessible for more.

Meanwhile, China has boosted connectivity by mobilizing all major telecom service providers and upgrading the bandwidth of major online education service platforms. With this, they have produced over 24,000 online courses for university students, making it the largest simultaneous online learning exercise to date.

Are Face-to-Face Classes Still Feasible?

While distance learning guarantees the safety of learners and educators alike, there are still degrees that require face-to-face interaction. An aspiring medical doctor would likely have a hard time learning how to sew a patient’s wound from their home. Likewise, those studying to become physical therapists would need to treat their patients in person.

In an email interview, Dr. Jaifred C. F. Lopez, assistant professor and special assistant to the dean in UP Manila’s Department of Nutrition, shared that five crucial guidelines must be in place for the safe reopening of physical classrooms: physical distancing, contact tracing and testing, proper ventilation, adequate handwashing facilities, and coordination with the LGU. He also emphasized that the resumption of face-to-face classes should be limited as schools can easily become crowded.

In previous calls for pilot runs in low-risk areas, the Department of Education (DepEd) recommended half-day classes for face-to-face learning. According to DepEd undersecretary and spokesperson Nepomuceno Malaluan, the half-day schedule prevents the increased risk of infection when students take their meals, as students who have morning classes can go home to take their lunch, while those with afternoon classes can already eat before coming to school.

As for how many students can attend a particular class, DepEd recommended a maximum of 20 students per class. For smaller classrooms, that number drops to 16 to ensure physical distancing. Small schools are recommended to have only one class per grade level, medium schools can have a maximum of three, while large schools can have a maximum of five.

The safety of face-to-face classes lies in the school’s capacity to implement these guidelines, making it uncertain whether physical classes will be implemented in the near future as originally intended.

“The safest time for full-scale reopening may be if we already have indisputable proof that the concerned age groups have already achieved herd immunity. For now, we may need to imagine the near future attending online classes,” said Dr. Lopez.

Solving the Learning Crisis

With face-to-face classes still a far-off possibility, there is an urgent need to address the lack of decent access to the internet and/or gadgets. The former can be attributed to the Philippines’ lack of internet infrastructure, which means the government and private sector need to work together in upgrading digital infrastructure all over the country. For the latter, the availability of relevant and effective tools is necessary, which some local government units have been addressing with the distribution of free gadgets to students. It is also necessary to equip teachers with knowledge on IT competency and proficiency to maximize the tools provided for them.

In addition to using traditional mediums, more creativity is needed in coming up with learning strategies. Keeping students interested in studying through mass media like television shows can supplement schooling. Educational programs from the ’90s like Sine’skwela, Bayani, and Hiraya Manawari had reruns in 2020, and it might be a good idea to produce less dated shows that will capture the attention of today’s generation.

Of course, saving the education system is a matter of continuous monitoring, evaluation, iteration depending on what works and what doesn’t, and implementation. As Villa de Gracia said, educators must “be open to feedback, and make use of the feedback received to further improve.”

Kat Mayuga took up computer science in college and is now working full-time as a technical writer. On her days off, she loves reading, playing video games, and building PCs. She’s always on the hunt for the most aromatic coffee beans.

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