No one left behind
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - May 29, 2020 - 12:00am

This is going to be the most memorable year for Philippine education since World War II forced schools to shut down.

Even before the coronavirus disease 2019 upended our lives, there was already a significant income-driven gap in the quality of education in our country.

Now, with COVID-19 compelling a shift ASAP to “blended” modes of learning, there are fears that millions of underprivileged children will be left behind, that we will have a “lost generation.”

These are the children with not even the cheapest Android phones, with no access to the internet and, worse, without even electricity in their community.

Blended education combines online learning with radio and television – now made easier by livestreaming technology.

The Department of Education (DepEd) is stressing that in areas with poor or zero access to the internet and broadcast media, learning materials will be delivered directly to the homes of underprivileged students.

In theory, this does seem promising and feasible.

In practice… I prefer to cheer on our can-do spirit, and hope we can make it work.

*      *      *

Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian, who chairs the Senate committee on basic education, arts and culture, says it’s a choice between having something over nothing. With blended learning, at least there will be students who can get on with their formal education.

Gatchalian, who faced “The Chiefs” last Tuesday on One News/TV 5, said the Senate is also working on a bill that will allow the opening of classes beyond August – just in case the COVID situation deteriorates and forces a reset of the Aug. 24 opening target.

The transition to more lenient forms of quarantine is in fact a dangerous period for public health, as people become complacent and careless. As we have seen even in countries with better capacity for dealing with the pandemic, the virus can return, as infectious and deadly as ever, if health safety protocols are taken for granted.

Teachers themselves have expressed concern over the start of enrollment for the new school year, which Malacañang has said is proceeding as scheduled this Monday, June 1.

That’s just a few days away. Are the schools ready for physical distancing for the enrollment of an estimated 27 million students?

Many private schools are capable of online enrollment and payment of tuition and other fees. But DepEd Undersecretary for administration Alain Pascua has said that only 48 percent of DepEd-operated public schools have internet access. That’s only 22,645 out of 47,013 public schools with internet connectivity. The rest are left with no choice but to conduct face-to-face enrollment.

Will educators be given sufficient personal protective equipment for the task? And will the parents or guardians be able to resist breaking distancing requirements? We see such crowding at the venues for the distribution of cash aid under the social amelioration program.

*      *      *

The lack of digital connectivity in many areas of the country is also raising concern over the blended learning program.

Again, there are schools that are ready to switch to this mode, and have in fact been doing it to a certain extent even before the government began imposing quarantine measures in mid-March.

But many schools are still not technically enabled. What happens to their students? TV and radio can only offer passive learning. And what happens when there are three or more students in the family, at different grade levels? Will the household need more TV or radio sets?

Such complications are giving rise to the question, crazy as it initially sounds: why not just postpone classes until 2021? This will ensure that no student gets left behind; everyone will just be set back by a year.

It won’t be the first time that this will happen; classes stopped during the war years. This time, the postponement may be for only half a year, with the opening set after the Christmas holidays rather than June and the school calendar perhaps changed to a trimester.

This scenario has been raised after American immunologist Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, sounded a hopeful note in his latest statements on the pandemic. He said that a second COVID wave “could happen, but it is not inevitable,” and a vaccine could be “deployable by the end of the year, by November-December.”

Other sectors, on the other hand, have warned that vaccine developers are overpromising and hyping their work.

Several health experts have expressed support for President Duterte’s pronouncement that without a vaccine, there would be no classes. His spokesman Harry Roque later clarified that Duterte was referring mainly to face-to-face classes.

One problem with the one-year class suspension is the fate of teachers. Can the government and private operators support their staff without work for a year? There are about 800,000 public school teachers. Not all of them can be employed as COVID contact tracers, as some quarters are suggesting.

Teachers need to cram on the alternative modes of education. Even pre-pandemic, many already needed upskilling on digital technology.

Among students, even if internet connectivity is rushed in areas previously not covered by the service providers, it may have to be offered free for public education among the marginalized sectors. Who will ultimately foot the bill?

*      *      *

With blended education modes now being rushed for rollout, perhaps we will finally see a more aggressive push for universal internet connectivity and a boost in speed and reliability.

Our neighbors notably Vietnam and Thailand have done better in this aspect, boosting their attractiveness as investment destinations.

Better digital connectivity will also facilitate COVID contact tracing using smartphone-based apps, which we are just starting to tap. Such apps have been widely used in the places that have dealt decisively with the pandemic: Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, and to a certain extent, Singapore, although the city-state has grappled with a COVID outbreak in cramped dormitories for migrant workers.

Face-to-face education is possible in these areas, complemented by information and communication technology. No student is in danger of being left behind.

In our country, a possible upside in this crisis is if the long overdue upgrade in our digital infrastructure is finally implemented.

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