Believe it or not, the Philippines is already in the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic. While other countries are faring better with how they manage the spread of the virus and are returning back to normal when warranted, our country’s management of the crisis has been more of a cycle between reopening of sectors and reverting back to lockdown due to pandemic restrictions – all without a concrete plan that could provide a pathway to ultimate recovery.

Because of the current health crisis, many sectors have either scaled down operations to virtual setups. One of the sectors that have been most impacted by such limitations is the education sector. For most of the pandemic up to this moment, most schools have been closed, and physical class setups have been replaced by distance learning methods — online classes and learning through modules. Despite being branded as an inclusive alternative for the moment, these have been proven to have adverse effects on the well-being of learners and teachers.

In addition, the country’s school reopening for limited in-person classes last year was a way long overdue measure, as we were the last nation in the world to resume physical classes. Yet, schools operating for limited in-person class sessions are very few compared to the number of schools that are still closed for the time being or are waiting for their future school reopening for face-to-face classes.

The challenges brought by distance learning is more evident in the country’s special education (SPED) program. Depending on the conditions and competencies that they have, their education relies on physical and hands-on learning and approaches that should be suitable to the students’ conditions and needs. However, the program is not spared from the limitations imposed by the government amid these trying times. What happens if the physical nature of their education is being prohibited due to the health crisis?

The gaps of distance learning in SPED

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization – Institute of Statistics (UIS) defines SPED as “education designed to facilitate the learning of individuals who, for a wide variety of reasons, require additional support and adaptive pedagogical methods in order to participate and meet learning objectives in an educational programme.”

With the above definition, the keywords are “additional support” and “adaptive pedagogical methods.” Indeed, SPED is very much different from your normal academic mechanism as it focuses more on the development of learners with a wide range of conditions that require special needs. For the Department of Education (DepEd), this encompasses “physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments” that affect their way of living.

As SPED Teacher Carmela Vitales said, assessing the development of SPED Teachers in this time of distance learning can be a difficult task.

“Ang mga learners po with disabilities po or learners with special educational needs, iba kumpara sa regular na bata. Sila, kailangang makita mo kung ano yung na-develop nila. Hindi pwedeng through online lang, kasi hindi lang academically po namin sila tinitingnan. Holistically po, all aspects ng kanilang skills, kailangan mong makita. Yung iba doon, hindi mo makikita through online assessment. Kailangan mo silang makita through observation, so kailangan ng help ng magulang kapag nagtatanong kami sa kanila kung ano ang kaya nila,” Vitales explained.

Vitales is currently a Special Education Teacher 1 from the Kabitbahayan Elementary School-SPED Education Center in Navotas City. She is handling learners with disabilities ages 15 to 35 years old through the transition program. Among other things, they are teaching learners not only basic academic skills but also life skills such as basic hygiene.

“Yung iba doon, hindi alam kung paano ang tamang paghuhugas ng katawan, paglilinis, pagsasaayos, lalo yung sa mga babae, ng kanilang mga hygiene. Ganoon po yung tinuturo po namin sa kanila, then kung paano sila mamuhay kahit papaano nang maging independent, na hindi pati yung bagay na yun ay iaasa sa tangapangalaga o magulang nila,” she said.

Yet, with the current distance learning measures, Vitales said that she understands the struggles of her learners in coping and dealing with the requirements for the said setup, unlike the usual face-to-face schemes that they do before the pandemic. She noted that lack of therapy needed for learners, as well as financial woes by families, can lead to a slow or even regression of the learner.

“Yung worry nga namin, pag nakita namin sila talaga na bumalik sa face-to-face, parang ang iba doon, magba-back to zero kami kasi yung iba, nag-regress. Kahit na sabihin mong ganyan sila, meron pong impact sa kanila yung nakukulong sila sa bahay. Malaki po yung factor na ‘yun na maaaring mag-regress sila,” Vitales said.

This sentiment towards remote learning was also shared by Mrs. Rosanilla Consad, Assistant Principal and SPED Teacher from San Vicente National High School in Butuan City, Agusan del Sur. Known by progressives as “Teacher Lai,” the Secretary-General of the Alliance Concerned Teachers (ACT) in the CARAGA Region, she explained that the current issues in the implementation of distance learning in SPED are just part of the overall problem on remote learning in the education sector.

“Mayroon naman talagang masasabing problema along the way, especially, sasabihin ng mga estudyante ko na, “Ma’am, biglang nawawala ‘yung signal,” “Ma’am, wala po kaming internet ngayon, Ma’am,” “Ma’am, wala po akong gadget ngayon, Ma’am.” Ganyang mga instances, masasabi nating hindrance ‘yun sa everyday learning ng mga bata,” Consad shared.

“Paano na kaya ang mga bata na walang kapansanan? Paano na kaya ang pamamaraan ng mga guro na magpaabot ng lesson or the delivery of the lesson of the learners sa sitwasyon natin [na] yung internet connectivity yung pinaka-problema natin?” she said.

Handling the blind and visually-impaired learners in high school, Consad said that they are implementing a distance learning through online means for her learners to follow instructions and lessons through their sense of hearing. Aside from these, learners are provided with learning materials which, in her case, are audio recordings of their voices narrating the lessons on their modules.

However, Consad understood that this may not be the case for learners who are yet to learn Braille. “Ang medyo mas malaki yung challenge na kinakaharap ay mga elementary SPED teachers kasi nagtuturo pa kasi sila kung paano magsulat yung mga bata,” Consad said.

Hardships in attending classes

Despite such efforts by the teachers, the learners and their families themselves were somehow having difficulty in attending sessions due to financial limitations and lack of resources, among others. In the case of the learners of her fellow teachers, Consad said that there are students who have stopped attending classes as they have no gadgets for the setup:

“Ang nakarating lang sa aming mga report ay mga students na ayaw nang mag-aral sa distance learning. Talagang nag-stop yung mga deaf [students] namin. […] Yung mga deaf, mayroon talagang nag-stop kasi nga ang pinaka-rason ay walang gadget, so pag walang gadget, walang internet connectivity. Paano niya [maitatawid] yung pang-araw-araw niyang klase at kung paano rin [maipaparating] sa kanya yung lesson kung walang mga ganun?” Consad said.

“Kaya we cannot force them to enrol, kasi kami mismo, wala kaming maitulong sa mga bagay na ‘yan dahil mayroon rin kaming kakulangan,” she added.

On the other hand, Vitales often receive reports of learners somehow coping with the current situation. Sadly, in some instances, they would assist parents when learners experience uncontrollable tantrums and even self-harm:

“Karamihan po ang sinasabi ngayon, yung iba, nakakaraos o di kaya’y nakakayanan nila yung anak nila or maging yung bata, nakaka-survive. Pero karamihan po talaga, may iba kaming bata na naglalaslas na rin, o di kaya yung may ADHD na sila then mako-contain sila sa isang bahay na parang ngayon na ano ng magulang na “Ma’am, ganito po ngayon yung behavior ni ganito.” Talagang andoon po kami, ia-assist namin lahat ng pamamaraan o intervention na “Mommy, i-ganito niyo po ‘yung bata. Massage niyo, ganito po ang pagma-massage,” Vitales said.

In cases such as these, Vitales and her fellow teachers would conduct visitations where they assist parents and monitor the condition of their learners. “Kina-counselling po namin yung mga batang naggaganun na po. Pinupuntahan namin sa bahay. Talagang yung face-to-face po, sumusuong kami, pinupuntahan namin sa bahay, kinakausap yung bata kasi bawal naman pong magpapunta nang magpapunta ng bata sa school. Kung yung level, mababa at pwede naman ang bata, pumunta, pinapapunta namin with their parents. Pero kapag po ganito na [alert] level 3 po ano, kami naman po ‘yung pumupunta,” she explained.

‘Going the extra mile’

Despite limitations in distance learning, SPED Teachers have exerted effort in reaching out to learners and parents. While the current situation prohibits setups that require physical interaction, teachers have implemented measures in continuously guiding their learners, offering them continued support and the needed personal interaction amid the pandemic.

For instance, Vitales said that they often conduct home visits to their respective students to monitor the development of learners, to guide parents in assisting their child and to provide learners with helpful resources for their education. She said that through this, they can be able to visit and assess even those who cannot easily comply with the needed resources for online learning.

“Minsan, at least once a month, nakakapag-home visit kami o di kaya, every other month, kasi po sa dami din nila. Di naman sila lahat po ay nakakapag-online lahat nang continuously or synchronously kasi yung iba, walang pambayad ng internet so nagde-data lang sila, load load lang per week ng 100 pesos, eh nauubos din ng bata. Minsan syempre, hindi lahat ng bata, yung attention nila lalo yung may gadget, temptation sa kanila, yung attention nila, wala talaga doon,” Vitales said.

During their visits, they would also provide learners with therapeutic toys as part of their project that would aid in the therapeutic care of their students while actual therapy cannot be given to them due to the current restrictions.

“Through Project SHIELD, we come up [with] project therapy. Andoon po yun na, ang mga bata, quarterly, nagpapauwi kami ng mga therapeutic toys na – ayun nga, gaya ng sabi ko kanina, hindi sila nakakabalik o nakakapunta sa kanilang therapies o nabawasan yung schedule nila – makakatulong sa kanila to develop or to ease yung kanilang mga tantrums. Kapag kaya na ng batang ‘yun o feeling ng nanay, hindi na nage-effect yung therapeutic toys na yun, you can come back to school para palitan ulit po yun ng ibang toys na naman,” Vitales said.

Fortunately for Mrs. Vitales, the local government of Navotas City has provided gadgets for SPED learners and instructors. They were also able to provide additional support through learning kits, dubbed as the “Navo-School in a Box”, as well the “Tutor-a-Learning-Child” program where tutors go house-to-house to provide additional teaching assistance to students.

“Ngayon ang naging struggle naming isa pa, paano namin sila makikita everyday kung may online nga, kasi blended ang Navotas – modular and online class. Edi internet at tsaka gadget. Then yung Navotas naman po, nakapagprovide ng mga tutor-a-learning child. Malapit na, lahat ng bata ko, may gadget na halos. Konti nalang halos, mga five or six nalang na bata ko ang walang tablet at walang cellphone,” Vitales said.

As for Consad, they would crowd-source funding for the needs of their learners, particularly those who are about to stop schooling due to a lack of resources. She shared that they were able to partner with private entities, as well as former alumni and friends who offered donations to purchase the necessary gadgets needed for the learner:

“Doon na kami nanghingi ng tulong sa mga kaibigan, ng mga alumni namin doon sa school para matulungan yung bata, mabigyan ng gadget, at kung sinong pwedeng mag-sponsor sa kanila sa pang-araw-araw nilang learning. […]  Pero kahit hindi SPED Teacher eh, ganoon talaga yung mga teacher ngayon. Nagpo-post sa FB, nananawagan sa mga batch na kung pwede, mayroon akong estudyante na walang cellphone, kahit man lang analog na cellphone, kung may extra kayo diyan, baka naman para mapaabot yung pangungumusta namin, saan na siya sa module niya. We go extra mile for that,” Consad recalled.

SPED and Internet Connectivity

Both Vitales and Consad shared their struggles for internet connectivity for continuing SPED instruction. While support and funding for printing modules are being provided by the school and the Education Department, unstable internet connection remains a problem.

“Yung load po, kasi dati ang binibigay lang po na ano samin sa amin is 300 pesos, nahinto po yun. Nagbigay sila ng SIM card, hindi naman po niya nasusustain yung kailangan namin na para sa buong isang linggo. Nawawala naman po agad yung data kasi magsu-Zoom ka pa, malakas ang bandwidth noon, or di kaya magsu-source kami ng mga lesson video, bukod sa magda-download kami sa Youtube eh ang downloading, malakas din po yun makaubos ng data,” Vitales shared.

“Si Teacher kasi, SPED Teacher for the deaf, yung nagdedevelop ng mga videos para sa mga estudyante niya. Sa usaping load, kay teacher. Sa usaping development ng materials in the form of videos, kay teacher yan. Walang ibinigay na special allotment ang school namin or ang DepEd para sa ganoon,” Consad said.

To aid in their needs for stable internet connection, SPED Teachers would personally compensate for their expenses, as Vitales explained:

“Talagang yung iba po, personal na lang din po naming pino-provide kasi nga po ayaw din po naming laging hinaing na lang na ‘di kasi kami binigyan. Solusyon nalang po yung ginagawa namin. Kung may dumating, super thankful po kami, pero yung araw-araw kaming magse-sentimento na wala kasing ibinibigay samin yung gobyerno, hindi po, ginagawan na lang po namin ng solusyon po,” she said.

Despite hardships, Vitales continued to do her responsibility as a SPED Teacher for the welfare of the learners that she is serving:

“Masaya po kami sa ginagawa [namin]. Masaya ako sa ginagawa ko. I’m so happy na kahit sa ganitong kondisyon, hindi ako sumabay sa daloy ng problema o pandemya. Talagang ginawa ko yung pamamaraan na di dahil sa trabaho ko kundi para sa mag-aaral ko na nangangailangan nang higit sa akin dahil alam ko po’t nauunawaan ko ang mga magulang na kagaya kong may mga batang may kapansanan,” Vitales said.

Challenges in SPED

In the recently passed budget for F.Y. 2022, the country’s SPED program has been given a budget of P563,203,000, which is 58.45% higher than last year’s budget of P329,203,000. From 2020 to 2022, the budget allocated for SPED is increasing.

However, ACT Secretary-General Raymond Basilio noted the continued decline of quality in SPED that coincides with the decline of quality of education in the country in general.

“Masasabi natin na yung mga may kaya sa buhay we’re able to get needed support na kailangan para sa kanilang mga anak, pero yung kalakhan ng mga mamamayan na walang access sa private tutor o sa mechanisms to purchase the needs for the education of their children ay ibang usapin ‘yan,” Basilio said.

“Doon pa lang sa setup, napakahirap na para sa ating mga special education students yung mekanismo. Dagdag pa natin diyan yung usapin ng dagdag na trabaho sa bahagi ng ating mga guro, so mage-extra effort ka talaga na you have to do a recording of your classes para mapakinggan ng mga bulag nating estudyante, or you have to do a lot of means para ma-engage naman yung mga hindi nakakarinig o hindi nakakapagsalita na mga estudyante,” he added.

Consad also aired her grievances towards the government’s lack of support for SPED, which she described as discriminatory against the program, as well as antithetical to DepEd’s goals towards inclusivity.

“Kami na mga SPED Teacher, kanya-kanya kaming hanap kung saan kami kukuha ng mga materials na para sa mga bata namin. Para kasing na-discriminate kami sa totoo lang kasi focus lang talaga yung sa mga regular students, nakalimutan nila na mayroong karapatan itong mga estudyante natin, whether may kakulangan sila sa paningin, pandinig, pagkaintindi sa mga bagay-bagay,” Consad explained.

“Sana in this particular aspect, matulungan, mabigyan, magampanan ng ahensya natin ang kanyang mandato para tumulong sa [sinasabi] nilang ‘Education for All.’ Yun ang panawagan namin, at yun ding matulungan ang mga magulang para naman matutunan din nila kung paano maging kabalikat ng mga teachers sa panahon ngayon,” she added.

Aside from the above calls, Consad also pointed out the struggle for the promotion of SPED instructors, as well as their compensation and health benefits that they need, especially in theese times amid a health crisis:

“When it comes to benefits na matatanggap, walang special na benefits na natatanggap ang mga SPED Teachers. Walang special allotment para sa kanilang health and wellness. Kung magkasakit, absent, then kaltas sa sweldo or di kaya kaltas sa service credits,” Consad said.

“Tulungan din nila yung mga special education teacher when it comes to promotion kasi matagal nang nagtuturo ng SPED pero Teacher I pa din, Teacher II pa din. Nasaan yung compensation na dapat magkaroon ang isang teacher na matagal nang nagtuturo ng special education. Kasi ang ilap eh, elusive para sa amin, mahirap na ma-promote from a regular teacher to a SPED Teacher,” she added.

In the end, Basilio said that the quality of SPED in the country is due to the continuous neglect of the government to provide funding and support for the education sector, which manifested further amid the COVID-19 Pandemic:

“Sa ating bansa, nakita natin yung patuloy na pagsasalaula ng pamahalaang Duterte doon sa constitutional right ng kabataan para sa dekalidad na edukasyon. Nakita natin, dalawang taon na tayo sa pandemya, tayo na lang ang tanging bansa sa buong mundo na hindi pa nagbubukas ng mga physical classrooms para sa pagbabalik ng mga mag-aaral at mga estudyante. Hindi variants ang dahilan nito. Ang dahilan talaga ng pananatiling sarado ng ating mga eskuwelahan ay yung pananatiling hindi equipped yung mga schools sa mga preventive measures,” Basilio said.

Having said that, Basilio recommended that aside from utmost support from the government, there should be a full resumption of physical classes and ensuring that schools are ready to support the welfare and safety of students in crises such as a pandemic.

“Hindi ang Omicron ang last na variant. Hindi COVID-19 ang magiging last na pandemya na kakaharapin natin. We need to invest sa ating edukasyon to make it pandemic-proof or pandemic-ready. Wag nating antayin na dumating ang isa na namang pandemya ngunit ganito pa rin tayo,” Basilio said.

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