Education gap
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - June 1, 2020 - 12:00am

The unprecedented enrollment for school year 2020-2021 starts today through the remote mode for the first two weeks, before face-to-face or physical enrollment is allowed.

TV interviews, however, showed that several schools without internet access are set to conduct face-to-face enrollment beginning today, with physical distancing rules limiting the number of enrollees per day to be enforced.

For the tech-savvy, it’s certainly more convenient to process documents online, avoiding the long waiting lines in poorly ventilated school compounds.

Whether online or by phone call or physically, however, I’m hearing parents – particularly of younger grade school children from low-income households – saying they don’t want their kids to return to school yet on Aug. 24. Especially if it’s going to be a blended mode of learning anchored on the use of digital technology.

And I’m hearing an increasing number of parents saying the school opening should just be postponed for a year. They argue that since the government describes the battle against coronavirus disease 2019 as “World War C,” schooling can be suspended for the duration of the war – just as it was done during World War II.

This way, they argue, the education gap between the haves and have-nots won’t grow wider, and millions of underprivileged students won’t get left behind.

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The parents’ biggest concern, of course, is the risk of infection for their children. After all, there is still no vaccine or cure for the coronavirus disease 2019.

A text message going around yesterday could become a self-fulfilling prophecy – warning of the COVID-19 pandemic coming at us at full throttle beginning today with the easing of quarantine measures.

The parents’ second major concern is the expense for blended learning, which entails access to the internet and broadcast media.

While the government is not shutting out the option of learning modes that don’t employ electronic gadgets, parents understand that the children with access to digital modes of learning will have an advantage over their less privileged peers.

A common complaint I have heard from such parents is that they can’t afford even second-hand computers or the cheapest Android phones for all their children. Yes, that’s plural: three or four kids is still common in the typical Filipino family. Then there will be the additional monthly expense for internet access. Even if only for data, the additional expense could be considerable for minimum wage earners. For parents who have lost their jobs or have become underemployed as a result of the pandemic, the added expense could be out of the question.

Blended learning may also call for the participation of parents in their children’s education at home – something that the adults may be unable or unwilling to do. With livelihoods resuming, parents can return to work, and they can’t attend to their kids’ formal education. Also, even if the household has internet access, there are still parents who are unfamiliar with information and communication technology.

There are also questions about digital education for the very young – from kindergarten up to at least second grade. Can such children handle formal education without face-to-face interaction with the teacher?

Educators have realized that even the use of the mother tongue to facilitate childhood learning needs finessing. It has been found that a local dialect chosen as the mother tongue medium of instruction is not necessarily spoken in all households in a particular community. For kids whose households use a different dialect, being taught in other people’s mother tongue is like being forced to learn in a foreign language.

Now such kids will also have to learn their lessons using gadgets they are unfamiliar with, not within the controlled environment of a classroom with a person in authority, but in the relaxed atmosphere of home, with all the distractions especially if there is no room that can be dedicated to the learning period.

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Children in higher income households have an edge in blended learning. They probably got their first smartphones as early as four years old, and their own tablets or laptops by first grade. A room in the house can be set aside for their blended learning period, with no distractions from pet dogs, balut vendors or noisy neighbors and siblings. Some young prodigies may be more tech-savvy than their teachers.

Proponents of blended learning ask why such kids should be deprived of the chance to get on with their formal education even during the pandemic, if they can do it from the safety of their homes. Sure, it’s unfair to the less privileged – but when was life ever fair to people from different income groups in this country?

Then there’s the question of what to do with teachers for a year – about 800,000 in public schools alone. Those pushing for a one-year postponement of the school opening say teachers can be hired as COVID contact tracers, for the distribution of various forms of aid under the social amelioration program, for the rollout of the national ID system this year, and for the limited rollout of the universal health care program.

They may need some training for the tasks, but they are educators; if they can teach, they can easily learn. But will the tasks be commensurate with their pay? Will they need to take a pay cut?

Another proposal is for the educators to use the yearlong postponement to fully prepare for the new normal in the post-pandemic teaching environment, which will likely incorporate blended learning modes with traditional face-to-face education.

The government is unmoved; it has made it clear that the Aug. 24 opening is on, and that it would be up to parents if they want to enroll their children beginning today.

With the additional economic burdens arising from the pandemic, there is basis for the fear that education could become a luxury beyond the reach of millions of Filipinos.

EDUCATION GAP
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