The education divide
INTROSPECTIVE - Tony F. Katigbak (The Philippine Star) - May 27, 2020 - 12:00am

As we move deeper into the year and try to slowly evolve and deal with the ongoing coronavirus disease 2019 or COVID-19 crisis, we are forced to ask ourselves some really important questions many of which there are no definite answers to. Again, this isn’t a situation that comes with a roadmap. It’s not something anyone in modern history has ever had to deal with, and therefore every single step we take is new with no way of predicting the outcome.

Back in March when the pandemic first hit, we were all opposed to the idea of a lockdown. Many complained that, unlike China, we would not be able to sustain our citizens and that people would not follow the rules because they simply would not be able to live without finding some means of putting food on the table. While a large portion of that fear came true, we were – mainly – able to implement a massive scale lockdown that kept citizens at home, while the government sought to find ways to track the infections and bolster the healthcare resources in the country.

It was a painful journey from March to today and we can’t even look back and say that we had the same results as other countries that enforced lockdowns on their citizens. The entire goal was to be able to lower infection rates and prepare the healthcare sector to properly test, isolate, and care for COVID cases. While we were somewhat able to prevent our healthcare professionals from being overwhelmed, I don’t believe we truly have a handle on infections.

It’s almost impossible to discuss second waves when we are still riding the first wave. Our infections keep rising and our curve is nowhere near getting flattened. But, at the same time, we can no longer afford to remain in lockdown. The government can’t possibly sustain the population for much longer and despite immense resources and help from other countries and increasing our debt to staggering levels, we just don’t have the capability to get us to where we need to be to comfortably come and out of quarantine.

At this point, we need to accept that we have to open up the economy little by little to find a new way forward. This doesn’t mean though that we need to lighten up on our vigilance, or our security protocols. If anything, these need to be increased. With more people slowly venturing out, we need to be even more careful about wearing masks, not touching our faces, washing our hands, social distancing, and being prudent when it comes to movement.

However, now that life is trying to find a way to come to a “new normal” (a phrase which is quickly getting old), there are many questions that remain. One of the ones that parents are struggling with now is what to do about the upcoming educational school year. In a country that puts so much emphasis on school and getting a good education, we’ve come to point where we have to ask ourselves is it even remotely safe for the children to send them outside again?

I believe the answer is no and I know that many parents and scientists agree. So many countries around the world, with better capabilities than us, have tried reopening schools and it has resulted in infections and outbreaks again. We shouldn’t put our children’s lives at risk just because we are intent on them going back to school.

So what’s the alternative? Online learning or distance learning is one. Homeschooling is another. Homeschooling has been gaining popularity in the country for the past several years and now, because of the current situation, it is getting a boost once again. However, this solution is not for everyone, as it requires a heavy parent commitment. Not all parents are capable of, or even can, take charge of their child’s education. Many have to work, while others are just not equipped to become teachers.

As for remote learning or distance learning, there are several requirements for this to work too. Schools and teachers have to quickly pivot to online class setups and online methods of teaching. Children will require, at minimum, a phone and stable internet connection. They will also need to be able to set aside time to use these and attend classes online. This will require a whole new level of discipline on their parts and on the part of their parents.

The bigger problem remains though, that while parents and families with the means can look at these options for their children, a larger part of the population can’t. There are so many underprivileged Filipinos that don’t have the means (i.e. steady internet connection or devices) to be able to pursue online learning. The same is true for many public school institutions and teachers. While they may be open to this setup, they don’t all have the means of making it happen.

Which leaves the government and the Department of Education in a pickle. Do they force schools to open or do they put a halt to the coming school year? Many parents have already expressed their desire to keep their children home, and even the President has stated that he isn’t comfortable opening schools while there is no vaccine available. However, what if that doesn’t happen soon?

It’s a big problem. At this point, I believe that private schools should be allowed to push forward with online learning if they can and that the government and DepEd should look into how public schools will operate moving forward. Perhaps they need to invest in infrastructure that will provide basic internet to depressed areas. That will already help alleviate the burden a little while families try to find devices to use. That’s just one option. They can look at others.

Or, if there is really no option, parents shouldn’t be afraid of having their children miss one year of school. They may fall behind, but at least they will be safe. Catching up on their studies is possible, recovering their health (and there are so many cases showing COVID infections leave lasting organ damage) cannot.

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