The Philippine crisis in education

THE PANDEMIC threw education off course all around the world. But some have fared better than others. In the Philippines, it is a loss so profound as to cast doubts on how the schools can get back on track. The country had already been singled out among those where learning curves had declined even before the pandemic. 

The crisis has shut down regular physical schooling since March 2020, even in provinces which were relatively free of COVID-19 infection. In the course of 2020, the basic education system (K-12) failed to develop effective programs for remote learning, mixed, or blended modes of teaching. Nearly 2000 schools, both public and private, were forced to close and more than 25% of pre-school to high school students did not enroll last school year. Furthermore, families could not afford the required digital equipment, mobiles or computers for their children to participate in any of the digital programs available. On top of these limitations, the country’s data infrastructure was not reliable enough to provide access in many areas. 

Private schools struggled as well to produce effective modules as parents and children complained about studying at home. This added to the crisis caused by the low enrollments that forced 748 private schools to suspend operations.  

In 2020, President Duterte closed his mind to the idea of opening schools physically even in areas which were free of COVID cases. He warned against putting any children at risk. In June this year, the Department of Education (DepEd) had already floated a trial run of face-to-face classes in areas with a low risk of COVID-19. But President Rodrigo Duterte shot down the proposal, citing the threat of the Delta variant.

UNESCO released a report on August 25 about the impact of the pandemic on education, noting that most countries were in the process of reopening schools back to the traditional classroom setup. News of the findings broke just as the Duterte administration had declared MECQ in the NCR and other areas of the country. With the country’s staggering COVID-19 numbers, the Philippines is one of only five countries in the world that had yet to resume face-to-face classes. The other countries were initially Bangladesh and Venezuela, as well as predominantly Islamic countries Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. By the end of September, however, there will only be two countries still unable to open face-to-face classrooms: the Philippines and Venezuela. Saudi Arabia resumed classes last August 29 and Bangladesh schools reopened on September 12; Kuwait has scheduled its school opening for September 27.

As UNESCO pointed out, “a phased reopening of schools, beginning in low-risk areas,” is still possible even with new variants if proper safety protocols are in place. The international body stressed the consequences of school closures which include “learning loss, mental distress, missed vaccinations, and heightened risk of drop out, child labor, and child marriage.”

Digital divide

Remote learning in the so-called “new normal” showed up the digital divide in the country.

DepEd’s enrollment survey in August 2020 found the lack of digital devices, insufficient mobile data allowance, and unstable internet connection among the primary concerns raised by parents about distance learning. More than 6.9 million cited unstable mobile and internet connections, while over 6.8 million noted lack of devices suitable for distance learning. Another 6.2 million cited insufficient load or data allowance.

According to a report by the Economic Policy Institute in September 2020, one of the “most critical opportunity gaps” in online learning is the “uneven access” to devices and the Internet. 

A study by the World Bank (WB) in 2020 revealed that roughly only 35 percent of the entire population in developing countries have access to the Internet as compared to about 80 percent in countries with advanced economies.

But the ills of the national educational system are deeper than just these technical issues. 

The World Bank’s published assessment of the country’s education system last July flagged the hard realities even before COVID-19’s disruption. Based on the Programme‌ ‌for‌ ‌International ‌Student‌ ‌Assessment‌ ‌(PISA)‌ tests in December 2019, more than 80% of Filipino students fell below minimum levels of proficiency expected for their grade levels, particularly in reading, writing, and mathematics. Citing data up to 2019, the report established that the crisis in education had set in even before the pandemic. 

Government officials reacted defensively to the report, but were focused more on the failure of the WB to advise government officials about the findings before the study was released. Education Secretary Leonor Briones demanded an apology from WB, which she got, but the findings were retained.  

In his column in the Inquirer last July 24, Ramon del Rosario Jr., who heads Philippine Business for Education (PBEd), a private consortium of business companies, noted that in 2020 more than a million students dropped out of school. Alarmed by the looming crisis, PBEd had been holding forums since the release of PISA in 2019 to discuss the critical situation in education and what could be done about it. 

Covering the crisis

Education is a regular news “beat.” And the media have followed the build-up of the pandemic’s impact on schools and learning.

May 2020

Some journalists began tracing the issues of online learning as early as May 2020, the third month of lockdowns in the NCR and Luzon. 

The Inquirer and brought to light problems related to the closure of private schools, the mass layoffs of school teachers and workers, and the migration of students to the already overpopulated public schools.

July 2020

The Inquirer documented the steep drop in enrollment, the difficulties posed by remote enrollment, as well as the lack of resources and skills for distance learning. 

Rappler discussed the lack of accessibility just for online learning, highlighting the old problem in far-flung rural areas that are difficult to reach by teachers; thus limiting the access to learning of any kind. 

October 2020

Rappler shifted its focus in a report in October on the stress experienced by parents who bear the brunt of teaching the long-distance modules. Added to the cost of gadgets and internet, they were also burdened with facilitating learning at home. 

Rappler also called attention to the poor quality of DepEd’s modules, identifying at least 30 errors ranging from “painful grammatical errors and wrong math equations” to “depictions of gender stereotypes.” 

April 2021

The Inquirer reported the effect of distance learning on the mental heath of young students, obviously heightened by the stress of the pandemic. The report highlighted the burnout of students and teachers, citing a youth group, the Samahan ng Progresibong Kabataan (SPARK), and the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT) which called attention to cases of suicide among learners and educators. 

Online learning for K-12 had not been expected  to succeed without the experience of classroom teachers and the physical engagement learning requires. 

May 2021

Interaksyon pointed out the need for on-site interaction that science courses require. 

June 2021 cited a behavior therapist who said that social interaction is one of the “major components in one’s well-being.” 

July 2021

Several reports in July highlighted learning loss, citing an online survey that found that 86.7% of students under modular learning, 66% under online learning, and 74% under blended learning said they “learned less” under the alternative modes of learning compared with the traditional face-to-face setup.

The dire situation calls for a unified effort to identify the hierarchy of problems and to decide what needs to be done and how. This monumental task and its implications cannot be sidelined by the triumphalism and self-congratulatory statements of the Education Secretary as she announced the school’s opening online classes this month. 

Without the physical and human interaction provided by face to face classes, the company of peers and the feedback from mentors, the online mode cannot be expected to stanch the bleeding in an already sickened institution and system that have suffered from poor policies and worse implementation, not to speak of the effects of politics and corruption. 

In reporting on the crisis of education, journalists need to move away from the mindset of those in charge. It is time for new thinking about how we educate ourselves and our children for the sake of developing a learning society.