“We welcome the recent statements of Philippine senators who are looking into and now warming up to the idea of re-opening schools, something that so many other countries have done and have implemented months ago along with health protocols as part of the “new normal” in education,” said Back-to-School Network, a group of students and parents from all over Metro Manila.

The group said they “welcome how the many ironies are now pointed out such as IATF orders to allow kids in tourist spots and malls, yet the schools were ordered to remain closed”, stressing they have aired these grievances many times but only now is being called out by national leaders.

The group trooped to the Department of Education on November 10 to bring to Department of Education (DepEd) Secretary Leonor Briones letters from children of their experiences in distance learning.

The network stressed that with more than 2.7 million dropouts because of the shift to distance learning and job losses due to prolonged lockdowns, many have been left behind, rendering the mantra ‘no student left behind’ already moot. League of Filipino Students NCR and private schools association COCOPEA earlier called out DepEd in its presentation that more than 99% enrolled.

“When distance learning was implemented, there were 2.7 million drop outs or those who did not enroll out of the 27 million who enrolled in the previous school year, according to DepEd. The almost 1 million increase in enrolment every year was not accounted, so there could have really been way more than the 2.7 million drop outs. This is the biggest number of unenrolled students or dropouts in the last decade, or maybe since the post-war years even. CHEd has yet to release enrolment data for this school year. But as we can see, at the beginning of distance or remote learning, millions have already been left behind. A group of educators have called them the ‘lost generation,’” said the group.

The group also cited UNICEF warning of a ‘lost generation’, following its study showing 260 million or 17% of all school-age children missing out on education in 2018, mostly concentrated in South and Central Asia ad sub-Saharan Africa. The pandemic made this worse, with 90% of the world’s student population affected by school closures.

The group also cited the statement of UNESCO director-general Audrey Azoulay: “Lessons from the past — such as with Ebola — have shown that health crises can leave many behind, in particular the poorest girls, many of whom may never return to school.”

“The DepEd shifted to distance learning upon the orders of President Rodrigo Duterte of “no face-to-face classes until there is a vaccine”, without having studied how to reopen schools during the pandemic while there is no vaccine, as many other countries have done so,” said the group.

The group said Deped has yet to share with the public if it had studied alleged benefits of school closures or prolonged lockdown/strict stay-at-home for young ones (8 months and counting) to curb virus transmission balanced against adverse effects in other areas, especially on children and on socio-cultural development. Without these studies having been presented to justify or explain the shift to distance learning was “un-educational”, they said.

What is known to the public, meanwhile are the many difficulties in distance or remote learning that was forced upon students. The group enumerated a few:

  • Parents or guardians bore the brunt of teaching younger students.
  • Families had to spend more to be able to comply—even those in the modular mode of learning had to have at least one smartphone and data load from time to time. This was despite many Filipinos having already lost their jobs because of the prolonged lockdowns.
  • Many students had to print their own modules.
  • Many college students also suffered from difficulties of distance or remote learning, leading to calls for ease, break or ending the semester.
  • Those the group encountered in typhoon-stricken areas lamented how it would be more difficult for them now to return to distance or remote learning after the typhoons hit their communities as modules, gadgets, school supplies, personal belongings, and livelihood among many others were washed out.

“There were also those students whose courses or classes were shifted online even if not exactly suited (e.g. physical therapy sessions online) or have not yet continued (e.g. lab classes or internships). Will their studies be delayed until the majority of the population has been inoculated with the COVID-19 vaccine that is yet to be completed? Will the difficulties of students continue until there is a COVID-19 vaccine?,” asked the group.

The recounting of difficulties is a different issue entirely from the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) and the quality of education received through distance or remote learning–but it is an issue many have also complained about, they said.

“The education of Filipinos students seemed to have been left to their own devices (even literally)—those who can afford can continue their studies,” lamented the group.

The Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF), the government’s COVID-19 response policy making body, has allowed several tourist spots to reopen, including Boracay, Tagaytay, Baguio, Bohol, Siargao, Enchanted Kingdom, etc. The stay-at-home restriction to 21 year olds were lowered to those 15 year old and below, but kids with their families and with the requirements to travel for leisure would be allowed to these tourist spots.

Meanwhile, the IATF also allowed medical internships at the UP Philippine General Hospital on October 29. It was met with mixed reactions.

The group scored how other countries with far better internet connectivity have opted to return to schools and they said this was because they probably found schools to be integral to the learning of students and rebuilding the lives of their people through this pandemic.

“Schools are important for the holistic learning of students, especially for younger students. Schools are also important for the livelihood of many sectors inside them and the communities around them,” the group stressed.

The idea of reopening schools with health protocols will remain a mere idea if Congress would not allocate the budget needed for it, they said while noting that the education budget in the P 4.5 trillion 2021 national budget the Senate passed on final reading a day ago is still attuned only to distance learning in line with government COVID-19 response: increased funding for equipment to meet printing requirements for class module, funding for the development, reproduction, and delivery of learning modules and funding for quality assurance of learning modules.

The group has been raising concerns on the re-opening of schools with health protocols and the budget needed for it since the resumption of classes in public elementary and high schools on October 5.

They again presented the alternative they re-opening schools with health protocols implemented to ensure the safety of the students. There could be:

  • Alternating classes – 2 days in schools to reduce class size to 30% and maintain physical distancing; worksheets on other days
  • Optional online classes – for those who wish to continue online
  • Regular COVID-19 testing for teaching and non-teaching personnel
  • Health clinics with health personnel, supplies and facilities – could be doctor, nurse or barangay health worker (not a teacher or homeroom adviser multitasking as clinic nurse)
  • Adequate number of restrooms for population – ensure these have water supply (as many public schools do not)
  • Free distribution of face mask masks, alcohol, soap and other hygiene implements

“Those who can or opt to continue learning online must be given the choice to do so, since the continuing increase of total confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country has not inspired confidence in many. This was why even if tourist spots have been reopened (even to kids, while schools remain closed), not many have returned to these once crowded leisure spots,” said the group.

“The alternative to distance or remote learning would be costly, but the education of the youth and the future of this nation are priceless,” they concluded.

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