Rushing back, but slowly
FROM THE STANDS - Domini M. Torrevillas (The Philippine Star) - July 7, 2020 - 12:00am

I live in an area surrounded by elementary and high school buildings, and I see parents peeping at the gates and asking security guards when schools will open. Some of them may want their bored kids out of sight and stop causing trouble at home – a result of their being in quarantine for months.

But the bigger source of worry for parents is their children’s skipping one year of schooling. The institution of K-12 has added two years of schooling, or to put it another day, delayed their children’s graduation.

Then there’s the madding advent of the COVID-19 that is felt by parents (and children) around the world. According to UNESCO, 91 percent of the world’s student population was affected when governments temporarily closed schools to prevent the pandemic from spreading.

“We do need to rush back to school. But we have to make haste slowly,” writes Crispin Maslog (chair of the Board, Asian Media Information and Communication Centre, Manila) in an article in SciDev.Net.

How big is this student population involved? According to Maslog, “The Asia-Pacific has 60 percent of the world’s young people, or 750 million youths 15 - 24 years old. India alone has 234 million young people, the highest number of any country in the world, followed by China with 225 million. Japan, an ageing country, has 12 million young people.

“The pandemic is still raging, but education is lagging,” writes Maslog. “Parents and teachers who prefer the traditional system are worried that we may never be able to go back to the old system – i.e., face-to-face learning, reinforced with smiles and back patting and aided by digital technology whenever available.’ “We never knew we had the ideal system – until we lost it via Wuhan, perhaps forever,” Maslog adds.

UNESCO says it in bureaucratese which somehow sounds more impressive: “Education itself will be defined by a new schism – the policies and practices before COVID-19, and those that will come to define the next generation of learning.” Amen.

“Before COVID-19 we had face-to-face schooling. Since that will no longer be feasible now on a large scale given the gigantic national populations we are dealing with, we have to search for a combination of approaches.

“We now have to invent a system for the next generation of learning. The schools in Asia are experimenting with various modes of delivery of their educational content. Predictably, most have gone online, like the universities in Indonesia’s most populated island of Java.

“Study from home is the most obvious option. But while the universities may be able to do this, the primary and secondary levels cannot because of sheer numbers. The divide between the digital haves and have-nots stand in the way. Most of these Asian countries do not have the digital infrastructure and technology to deliver the educational messages.”

“Sad to say,” Maslog writes that a majority of these students have limited school-provided computer labs and equipment. Many do not have access to fast and unlimited Internet on their mobile devices.

“Internet penetration in Asia ranges from super low in Central and South Asia to super high in East Asia. Low internet examples are Kyrgyzstan with 38 percent penetration, Tajikistan with 31 percent and Pakistan with 32 percent. At the high end of the spectrum are South Korea with 96 percent internet penetration, Japan with 93 percent and Taiwan with 92 percent.

“In the middle are the Asian giants – China with 59 percent internet penetration, India with 40 percent and Indonesia with 62 percent. The South Asian country Bangladesh is at 58 percent. In the broader middle are the mix of ASEAN countries, ranging from Brunei with 95 percent, Singapore 88 percent and Malaysia 81 percent, to Laos 42 percent, Cambodia 47 percent and Myanmar 40 percent.”

However, UNESCO is working with countries in the region to mobilize solutions to “provide education remotely, leveraging hi-tech, low-tech and no-tech approaches through formal and non-formal approaches.” In other words, anything goes since nobody really knows what to expect. This is unchartered territory.”

A blended approach proposed by the Philippines may work, writes Maslog. “The blended approach, as the name implies, is a combination of methodologies to deliver the knowledge. The approach entails a combination (or a mix) of various approaches which evokes images of a Filipino dish – the halo-halo (or mix-mix) of various tropical fruits served as refreshments with milk and crushed ice.

“This mix-mix includes college students learning from home in countries or areas where the internet is adequate – digital learning through computers for college students of families who can afford the equipment in places where high speed internet is available.

“For the highly developed countries where students will be able to complete schooling via internet, can you imagine digital classes having their reunions ten years from now? They will have a hard time partying with fellow alumni whom they have met only on the internet. Or one may show up at a reunion by his lonesome self?

“If college students go digital in developed countries, it will reduce traffic and help primary and secondary school students. For non-college students, when they reach school they will be subjected to the usual protocols – daily temperature checks, face masks, social distancing, use of hand disinfectants, regular disinfection of classrooms and equipment, with resident school doctors and nurses, and school-prepared meals served in the school cafeteria.

“But even this option has its critics. President Rodrigo Duterte himself prefers to wait until a vaccine is available before restarting classes to protect the children from COVID-19, and ultimately, the vulnerable adults in households. My optimistic estimate is that the vaccine may take another year to materialize.”

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