The Filipino Youth’s Call to Reopen Physical Classes

by Karina Melencio
Image: Ivan Aleksic/ Unsplash

On March 16, 2020, President Rodrigo Duterte announced a nation-wide lockdown, declaring the Philippines in a state of calamity. The announcement put all citizens under an Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ). Along with the news came a flood of preventive measures meant to ensure the safety of Filipino citizens and deter the spread of the COVID-19 virus. The preventive measures were broad and covered almost all areas of movement in both urban and rural areas. They included prohibition of  mass gatherings, suspension of all travel to and from Luzon (the most populous island of the Philippines), and the shutdown of all public transportation. However, the very first and most notable action done by the government was to suspend physical classes of all schools in Metro Manila, and eventually, the entire country.

Reopening Not in Sight

It has been one year since President Duterte’s announcement and implementation of the ECQ. Since then, there have been a few plans created by the Department of Education (DEPED) to accommodate students into the ‘New Normal.’ In DEPED’s Learning Continuity Plan for Basic Education, they defined two learning delivery modalities: face-to-face, which was prohibited nation-wide soon after the publication of their plan, and distance learning. Upon the enforcement of distance learning, DEPED specified three types of the learning modalities: namely, modular distance learning (MDL), online distance learning (ODL), and TV/Radio-Based Instruction. MDL includes printed materials to be delivered directly to  students’ homes and was promoted by DEPED particularly, as they expressed its benefits for the health and safety of facilitators and learners while being the most accessible mode of learning for students that could not afford gadgets or a stable internet connection.

“President Duterte himself has twice rejected the DEPED’s proposal to hold limited face-to-face classes in low-risk areas, stating that he ‘cannot gamble on the health of the children.’

Despite the plans created to refine schools’ distance learning systems, there seems to be little discussion about the steps leading to reopening schools and resuming physical classes. President Duterte himself has twice rejected the DEPED’s proposal to hold limited face-to-face classes in low-risk areas, stating that he ‘cannot gamble on the health of the children.’ He has also reiterated his intention to only resume face-to-face classes once the country has reached herd immunity against COVID-19.

Furthermore, the Secretary of DEPED, Leonor Briones, expressed her agreement to President Duterte’s statements, deciding to continue online and distance learning operations while waiting for a-signal to reopen schools from the administration. Secretary Briones’s agreement with the President is not far-fetched from her past sentiments in regards to learning during the pandemic. During an online press briefing about the opening of non face-to-face classes for the incoming school year in May 2020, Secretary Briones asserted that “education must continue” despite the public’s calls for suspension of online classes because of the continued COVID-19 threats and the mental, financial, and physical toll they caused to students and families.

In addition, the Chair of Commision on Higher Education (CHED), Prospero de Vera III, announced that “flexible learning will continue in the school year 2021 and thereafter.” Flexible learning pertains to the mix of online and non-digital modes, which doesn’t necessarily require internet connectivity. De Vera cites multiple reasons for the continuation of flexible learning, one of them being so as to not ‘waste’ the investments made in “technology, teachers’ training, and retrofitting of our facilities”. 

The efforts made to postpone physical classes and redirect improvements toward remote learning methods suggests the education departments’ intentions to rely on such modes of learning a year into the pandemic, and even the far future.

The Impacted Generation

If the government and administration have pushed to improve remote learning methods and online learning systems, it could be assumed that students’ learning experience altogether will progress along with the improvements. But the United Nations’ (UN) August 2020 Policy Brief entitled ‘Education during COVID-19 and beyond’ has reported otherwise. The UN stresses the existence of a learning and education crisis that may become a generational catastrophe if not addressed properly, explaining the possible impacts of “prolonged school closures” for students and the future generation: low learning retention, increased dropouts, and permanent educational displacement. To quickly address the worldwide education situation, the UN has stated that ‘the single most significant step that countries can take’ is to prioritize suppressing the spread of the virus and taking the necessary steps for safe school reopenings. 

“With at least 2.3 million dropouts in 2020, enrolments since the 2019-2020 school year have declined by 9%.”

However, as the Philippine administration continues to hesitate planning for school reopenings, the country continues to suffer the consequences. With at least 2.3 million dropouts in 2020, enrolments since the 2019-2020 school year have declined by 9%. The surge of dropouts is suspected to have been  caused by the growing unemployment of household families since the start of the lockdown, which increased by 17.5%. This growth is “triple its level in the previous quarter” according to The World Bank’s report on the impact of COVID-19 on households in the Philippines. More recently, in March of 2021, the Asian Development Bank published a study showing that “some 70% of Filipino households reported that they had at least one person who lost their job or had to reduce work hours.” This may be due to the fact that the income gained by most Filipino households is barely enough to keep them afloat in their day-to-day lives in the first place, especially during an economic and unemployment crisis brought about by the COVID-19 virus.

Erwin Rotas, a teacher working under the DEPED, and his colleagues, have also found several areas of difficulty in remote learning for university students in the Philippines, with unstable internet connectivity being the most prevalent. Rotas connected this issue with underdeveloped telecommunication systems and ICT infrastructures, which are also “not created equally in terms of speed and stability” across the country. 

Additionally, in the qualitative study of Ann Dianito and colleagues from Jesus Is Lord Colleges Foundation, they examined the ‘lived experiences and challenges’ Persons With Disabilities (PWD) students face in remote learning. Through interviews with the PWD participants, the researchers found two points of struggle for the students: further social exclusion in the rise of online learning during the pandemic and the limitations of assistive technology and fluctuating internet connectivity.

Such difficulties faced by students illustrate exactly how many  of them are being left behind. Working only on remote learning methods without first addressing the country’s deep-rooted problems of insufficient infrastructure, widespread poverty, and a large digital divide will only result in solutions that serve the needs of those who can thrive in a remote learning environment. The improvements made will inevitably ignore students that are unable to catch up to the advancements due to their pre-existing socio-economic circumstances. This could be their basic and digital literacy levels, geographical location, financial capabilities, and disabilities, among others.

A Closer Look: The Student Activist Perspective

To know more about the impact of remote learning on Filipino students, a member of Rise for Education – University of the Philippines Diliman (R4E – UPD) has agreed to answer a few questions about the issues that matter most to the youth, and share their demands for the future.

Q: To start off, what, in your opinion, is the current state of the Philippine educational system since the suspension of face-to-face classes? Have most schools adopted an online and/or modular learning approach? Or have there been other accommodations made for students during this pandemic?

A: [The] education system, despite being free, remains to be commercialized. The remote learning set-up only works for students who have access to the internet, gadgets, and conducive working spaces. Unfortunately, not everyone has the wealth to have these specifically for students who have a family whose monthly income is below the minimum. And, we all know that there are no presented plans from the government on the safe reopening of schools yet. By this, it only means that the suffering that students are experiencing continues.

Q: Have there been plans or news of any sort form the administration about the safe reopening of schools nation-wide, or #LigtasNaBalikEskwela? (Translation: #SafeReopeningofSchools)

A: Establishments are open but schools are not. By discerning this, education is less prioritized by the current administration, prolonging our [students’] campaigns and clamor for ligtas na balik eskwela (translation: safe reopening of schools).

Q: How has the administration’s refusal to resume or plan for the resumption of face-to-face classes affected students of the country?

A: This will prolong the agony of the students in remote learning set-ups. Not everything could be learned through the internet because in order to learn things, theories should be accompanied by praxis. For instance, science students need laboratories to perform their experiments in order for them to prove their hypothesis. And for me, it is a struggle for students who will graduate without enough competence in the field they want to master.

Q: Have there been any responses to easing the effects of online/blended learning to the students? If so, are they effective in addressing students’ issues? Why or why not?

A: On a national level, for me, there’s no response from any issues raised by students. As long as there is no roadmap on the resumption of classes, there is no assurance that education will be delivered free, accessible, and of quality.

Q: What are the youth community’s demands from the government and educational institutions in regards to addressing students’ current problems?

A: We always clamor and fight for #LigtasNaBalikEskwela. With our schools open, we will be able to attain the knowledge and learnings that we want, and that is pro-student. We want a safe reopening of schools, and by this [we mean to] demand a roadmap for attaining it such as mass-vaccination [of] students, employees, and institutions’ workers. More than this, we also want financial aid assistance from the government, and lastly, to rechannel military funds to health and educational institutions.

Q: What would you say are the root problems of the country’s educational system? Why is it that students are still demanding for changes to be made?

A: It remains to be colonial, commercialized, and anti-democratic. Colonial because we patterned our educational system to western curriculum. For instance, the K-12 which has evidently caused difficulties for students. Because of the added two years to our curriculum [Grade 11 & 12], other students chose to discontinue their education because their family does not have enough funds and the right materials for it. In this way, the commercialization of education is emphasized. Despite [education] being a right, students still need to pay tuition fees [for the added years]. Lastly, anti-democratic, because the attacks of the state on students and progressive organizations who express dissent are still happening left and right. Plus, with the presence of the broad anti-terror law, the rights of the students to organize and express their sentiments is impeded.

Q: There have been discussions about how to move forward from the New Normal and the current situation of the educational system of the Philippines. Mostly, we’ve been introduced two options: to improve the online learning systems, and/or to prioritize getting most of the population vaccinated to be able to reopen physical schooling. But what do you think, personally, the government and the people should prioritize? Would it be better to focus on improving online and distance learning systems, or to focus on reopening classes very soon?

A: I firmly stand that the government must focus on reopening the classes very soon. This will further help the students to perform well on their academics since they will have access to equipment and facilities that they need for learning (e.g. laboratories). More than that, we have to hold the government accountable for their ineffective responses to the pandemic.

Q: I know that Rise for Education – UP Diliman has advocated for the right to an inclusive and equal education for a very long time and has launched  many projects in regards to that. But, currently, what are the organization’s plans for aiding affected students and youth, and for supporting the safe reopening of schools in the country?

A: For now we will continue the campaign for Ligtas Na Balik Eskwela and academic ease policy whose aim is to lessen the burden of the students, and we are open to any dialogues with the [University of the Philippines] administration. Furthermore, [we] have projects such as ‘Tulong Isko’ [translation: Help Scholars] that help the students for [mobile] load assistance and any other related matters in regards to their study.

S.Y. 2021-2022 of the Philippines: What Must Be Done

The discussion of a safe reopening of schools in the Philippines has come to a fork in the road. Either significantly improve the online learning systems, giving more time for the government and herd immunity to grow, or speed-up the government’s response to the COVID-19 spread and its variants. The latter decision will satisfy the nation’s call for face-to-face classes and will put an end to the grave impacts of prolonged distance-learning for the vulnerable youth and their families.

However, the clamour of the Filipino youth for government plans to prioritize resumption of physical schooling is apparent from the start of the lockdown to this day. To avoid the ‘generational catastrophe’ that experts suspect to arise in prolonged remote learning, the Philippine government must take action. First and foremost, efficient and speedy processes for mass testing and vaccination should be established. Full commitment to equipping schools and students with the necessary tools to facilitate safe face-to-face learning follows soon after. These actions can start with listening to the demands of the Filipino youth, collaborating with academic and educational workers in creating a clear roadmap for eventual physical schooling, and replacing all military operations and task forces meant to ‘address’ the COVID-19 virus and its variants with medical solutions and financial support.

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