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As Classes Open, ‘Learning Crisis’ Highlighted With Millions Of Students Left Behind

As Classes Open, ‘Learning Crisis’ Highlighted With Millions Of Students Left Behind
The city government of Taguig launches on Oct. 2, 2020 its ‘Tele-Aral Program’ at Senator Renato ‘Compañero’ Cayetano Memorial Science and Technology High School to assist students in blended learning amid the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic. Photo by Russell Palma, The Philippine STAR

Across the country, millions of students are set to formally resume their education after a hiatus of almost seven months due to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.

The opening of classes will finally push through in public schools today, Oct. 5, after months of grueling preparations to shift to a distance learning setup.

However, despite efforts to offer different options to make education more accessible and inclusive during the so-called new normal, not every student has decided to return to school.

Latest data from the Department of Education (DepEd) showed that there are 24.72 million who enrolled in basic education this school year, representing 89.02 percent of the student population of 27.7 million in 2019.

While this exceeded the initial projections of 80-percent enrollment, the number still translates to around three million students who may have dropped out of the school system.

Most of those unaccounted for were students enrolled in private schools, where only 2.16 million – or 50.32 percent of last year’s student population – have enrolled so far.

Enrollment in public schools has already reached 22.5 million, or about 99.66 percent of last year’s enrollees, although the figure includes some 400,000 transferees from private schools.

A survey conducted by Save the Children International showed that at least 10 million students worldwide will not be able to return to school this year due to lack of access to technology needed for distance learning and support they need at home.

The survey showed that less than one percent of children from poor households have access to the internet for distance learning, despite more than 60 percent of national distance learning initiatives relying on online platforms.

At least 40 percent of children from poor households said they needed help with their schoolwork, but there is no one who can help them.

“It is clear that the most deprived and marginalized children are being hit the hardest by the pandemic, exacerbating existing inequalities and pushing the most vulnerable children even further behind,”  Inger Ashing, chief executive officer of Save the Children International, declared.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization or UNESCO offered a grimmer estimate: 23.8 million additional children and youth from pre-primary to tertiary worldwide may drop out or not have access to school next year due to the pandemic’s economic impact alone.

“The total number of children not returning to their education after the school closures is likely to be even greater,” the UN noted in a policy brief on the impact of the pandemic to the education sector.

“School closures make girls and young women more vulnerable to child marriage, early pregnancy and gender-based violence – all of which decrease their likelihood of continuing their education,” it said.

Save the Children explained that being out of school is one of the known drivers of violence against children, including child marriage, labor and exploitation.

“Not only does being out of school put children at a greater risk of violence, but it can also prevent children from ever returning to school,” it stressed.

Alberto Muyot, a former DepEd undersecretary who now heads Save the Children Philippines, said their global report reflects the situation of millions of Filipino children from poor households, including those with disabilities and living in marginalized areas.

“Children’s rights to continue learning is critical amid the pandemic and must be fulfilled not only through access to online technology but also the support of parents, caregivers and communities,” he said.

For the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the pandemic is not just a health crisis but also a learning crisis.

“The sheer scale at which school children have gone unreached constitutes an education emergency on a global scale. The repercussions could be felt in economies and societies for decades to come,” it said.

“During times of crises and emergencies such as COVID-19, children experience stress, fear and anxiety. Schools do much more than teach children how to read, write and count. Schools help bring a sense of normalcy to children’s lives,” it added.

The organization expressed support to DepEd for its initiatives to implement various learning approaches to make education more inclusive, stressing that the pandemic exposed high risks for disadvantaged children already lagging behind in learning.

“Equity should be placed at the core of education interventions to provide the same learning opportunity to children who are most vulnerable and are from the most marginalized communities. Inability to address these fuels inequality and reverses progress made in recent decades,” UNICEF stated.

“Children with disabilities and children from indigenous groups, whose risk to be left behind has been magnified in this context, should also be prioritized to prevent negative outcomes that can last a lifetime. Postponing learning, despite the availability of alternative means, makes it less likely that they will ever return to school,” it pointed out.

 ‘Lost generation’

In an earlier report, the Philippine Business for Education (PBEd) warned of a “lost generation of learners” who may be left behind if proper interventions are not put in place.

“It is essential for the government, private sector and academia to work together in providing flexible learning opportunities that will help the youth get back on their feet as quickly as possible,” PBEd executive director Love Basillote emphasized.

“Given the obstacles we are facing, our youth need to come out of this pandemic more resilient than before. We need to listen to them and together come up with appropriate programs and policy interventions that will facilitate their transition to the new normal,” Basillote said.

The Civil Society Network for Education Reforms (E-Net Philippines) said the government has to address the needs of the poor and disadvantaged sectors for inclusive and quality education in the new normal.

“The figures on the ground are alarming. Only 63,549 students with disabilities were able to enroll this year, leaving behind an estimated 3.23 million children,” the group said in a statement on Sept. 30.

“More than 3.5 million out-of-school-youth may not be able to avail themselves of the Alternative Learning System (ALS) this year, as only 365,602 enrolled,” it added.

In previous interviews, DepEd officials cited possible reasons why parents decided not to enroll their children, such as the lack of gadgets needed for online learning or concerns over COVID infection.

The officials repeatedly sought to clarify that gadgets and internet connectivity are not mandatory as students have the option to learn through printed modules delivered to their homes.

Face-to-face classes have also been suspended to reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission in the schools.

Looking at the data, however, could paint a fuller picture of the situation.

 For instance, the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao still has the lowest enrollment rate at 70 percent, from 890,985 in 2019 to 630,281 this year.

 E-Net Philippines also emphasized that “last mile” learners or those who live in remote areas are also disadvantaged, with 8,013 barangays – mostly in geographically isolated areas – still without elementary schools.

 “We believe that the government must exert all efforts into accommodating these unenrolled students into the system to ensure that no one is left behind,” the group said.

 “This means making the government learning programs accessible to all, including students living in remote areas, those with disabilities, and out-of-school youths and adults who can benefit from the alternative learning system,” it added.

 DepEd has yet to release its comprehensive plan on how it intends to reach students who have not enrolled this year.

 In a briefing on Saturday, Oct. 3, Undersecretary Tonisito Umali said they would look for the students who have not yet enrolled to present them options on how they could continue their education.

 He said late enrollees would still be accepted even after classes have already resumed.

 On Friday, Oct. 2, DepEd regional director for Metro Manila Malcolm Garma said they would verify the list of students of enrolled students to trace those who did not enroll this school year.

 He said some of the students could be in the provinces, while others – particularly those previously enrolled in the private schools – might still be assessing the situation and waiting for the opening of classes.

 Private schools in Metro Manila were among those that suffered a significant drop in enrollment, from 815,733 students last year to only 396,860 as of Friday.

 In Caloocan City, for instance, private schools have only 8,929 students – a plunge of nearly 90 percent from last year’s 79,509.

 Enrollment in Quezon City private schools, which has the highest in the region, plummeted by almost 150,000, from 203,288 to only 53,754.

 While Metro Manila public schools have seen an increase in enrollment from 2.05 million students in 2019 to 2.18 million this year, Garma acknowledged that the increase does not cover all of those who did not enroll in private schools.

 ‘Historic’ school opening

 Adopting distance learning as the primary mode of education is a first in history, according to Education Undersecretary Annalyn Sevilla.

 “Never has the department been more arduous and committed to make this transition happen,” she said. “We continue to work together to address concerns and improve the Learning Continuity Plan (LCP).”

 The LCP is the cornerstone of the preparations for the new school year. Released last June, the document outlined the different interventions that DepEd intends to adopt in response to the impact of the pandemic.

 From a trimmed-down curriculum to a list of remote learning approaches that students and their parents can choose from, the LCP contains relevant information aimed at guiding stakeholders in preparing for the new normal in basic education.

 It also identifies the three primary distance learning options that will be adopted this year: modular or the use of digital or printed module, use of online platforms such as the DepEd Commons, and education through radio and television.

 A combination of any of these learning strategies constitutes the blended learning approach, which DepEd said would make it more inclusive as it provides options depending on the capacity and capability of households.

 Over the past months, DepEd has focused most of its efforts on the production and distribution of learning materials that will be used this school year.

 Aside from the modules, production teams have also developed television and radio class episodes that will be aired on various channels or stations nationwide.

 These are intended to complement the education materials delivered through other modes of learning, primarily the printed modules that will be delivered to the students at home.

 On Sunday, Oct. 4, DepEd also released the revised academic calendar and the interim guidelines for assessment of students.

 Unlike in the past when grades are mainly based on examinations and quizzes, assessment tools will not involve written outputs, products or projects and performance tasks.

 “The DepEd is committed to ensure educational continuity in this time of crisis while looking after the health, safety and well-being of all its learners, teachers and personnel,” read the interim policy.

 “Schools must adopt assessment and grading practices that can most meaningfully support student development and respond to varied contexts at this time,” it added.

 With the delay in the school opening, the school year was also adjusted and will end on June 11. Distance learning activities are authorized on Saturdays except when prohibited due to religious considerations.

 The school year will have a total of 205 class days. “Summer” classes will end on July 23, while the Christmas break will be from Dec. 19 to Jan. 3.

 For Holy Week 2021, classes will be suspended only on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Black Saturday (April 1 to 3).

Reimagining education

According to the United Nations, there is a need to reimagine education to build back a resilient system that is flexible, equitable and inclusive.

 “In the face of global closures of educational institutions and the halting of non-formal training, there has been remarkable innovation in responses to support learning and teaching,” read the report.

 “But responses have also highlighted major divides, beginning with the digital one. Learning losses due to prolonged school closures mean that many educational outcomes are at risk. For a number of reasons, we cannot return to the world as it was before,” it added.

 It highlighted three priorities: catching up on learning losses; bringing back to school learners at risk of dropping out; and focusing on the social and emotional welfare of the student population, teachers and staff.

 With considerable attention given to the use of technology to ensure learning continuity, the UN stressed the need to remove barriers to connectivity to make it more inclusive to the marginalized sectors.

 “Low-tech and no-tech approaches should not be forgotten for those who have limited access to technology. Overall, countries need to plan to ensure children from the poorest households will not continue to be left behind,” it added.

 Teachers’ concerns

 Meanwhile, Vice President Leni Robredo said Sunday that DepEd  has failed to address the concerns of many teachers on the implementation of blended learning this school year despite the delay in the opening of classes due to the pandemic. 

“There are still a lot of problems,” Robredo said in her weekly radio program on the eve of the opening of classes in public elementary and high schools in the country. “One of the biggest problems on the part of the teachers is really the modular instruction and online instruction.”

School opening was originally scheduled on Aug. 24, but was moved to Oct. 5 to prepare the teachers for the new system of teaching.

Robredo lamented that while online teaching is more reasonable and environment-friendly, many students have no gadgets and teachers are still undergoing training.

She pointed out that modular instruction, which will be implemented in most areas in the country, is more expensive.

“It’s right to push through with the opening of classes, we cannot delay the education of the children. But there is a more efficient way to do this,” Robredo said.

The Vice President maintained that DepEd could implement face-to-face classes in over 400 local government units without local transmission of COVID-19.

She said classes could be conducted twice a week, with a limited number of students, and with teachers focusing on core competencies such as reading, mathematics and science.

Senators, for their part, said the DepEd must find ways to subsidize the additional expenses of teachers – such as face masks and alcohol – as they are already burdened with distributing self-learning modules and teaching via blended learning.

On Sunday, Senators Sherwin Gatchalian, Joel Villanueva and Risa Hontiveros also cited teachers for their dedication to duty and bravery.

Gatchalian, who chairs the committee on basic education, said there must a way to subsidize the additional expenses of teachers and non-teaching personnel for alcohol, masks and other items used to prevent infection.

 DepEd officials earlier said the agency’s 2020 budget does not cover COVID-19 medication, treatment or hospitalization of teachers and non-teaching staff.

 Teachers must also be spared from a heavy workload to prevent burnout, Gatchalian said.

 He warned that bombarding public school teachers with too many tasks would increase their stress and anxiety levels, which would hamper the effectiveness and quality of instruction for more than 22 million learners enrolled in public schools.

 Villanueva said a day would not be enough if all the praises and thanks from Filipinos to teachers would be recited.

 “We’re all aware and grateful for all your sacrifices for preparing for the new normal, and we’re all still adjusting all these different learning modalities. Often, you use your own savings to pay for internet connection and print the modules,” Villanueva added.

 He expressed belief that the dedication and hard work of teachers and non-teaching personnel allowed the country to push through with the school opening today.

 Hontiveros also praised teachers in private and public schools even as she called for more protection and financial assistance for them during the pandemic.

 She said funds must be set aside for medical benefits in case they contract COVID-19, and for internet connection as well as and printing of education materials.

 Hontiveros suggested that DepEd give computers to teachers instead of requiring them to take out loans.

 “The government must pay for these computers because these are part of their official obligations,” the senator said. – With Helen Flores, Paolo Romero