School opening
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - August 26, 2020 - 12:00am

As originally planned by the Department of Education, classes opened last Monday, but only in several private schools.

A boy I know began third grade for the first time in a virtual classroom, watching from his laptop at home as their principal welcomed the school community to the start of school year 2020-2021.

Their first day of school served mainly as a dry run for everyone, with much of the time devoted to meetings among teachers and school administrators.

Yesterday was getting-to-know-you day. The regular class hours, from 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., were devoted to the pupils introducing themselves to each other and to their teachers.

Today is the start of the actual lessons. After two days, the boy said their online communication was generally good, with occasional glitches that are common in teleconferences and livestreamed shows.

The boy’s class size is manageable, with only 15 students. A De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde professor, one of the Benilde educators who are mentoring teachers in other schools on digital education modes, says that ideally, the maximum online class size is 20.

This can be a problem for public schools, where the average class size in crowded Metro Manila is 40, sometimes rising to 50. The larger number could become the norm as students from cash-strapped families transfer to public schools from private institutions.

For the pandemic school year, the third grader’s class has become smaller from the previous year. Several of his classmates have transferred to nearby public schools; amid the pandemic, their parents need to save on tuition and other expenses.

*      *      *

As COVID-19 rampaged across the country, the parents in the boy’s school had consulted each other and initially decided not to enroll their children for a year, for fear that the kids might catch the killer coronavirus.

Since the government was calling the health crisis World War C, the parents noted, what’s a year of postponement for the safety of children? Schools were shuttered longer than that during World War II.

But school administrators and teachers themselves appealed to the parents, saying the school would be forced to shut down and its employees would lose their jobs if no one enrolled. They also explained that online learning would pose no risk of infection.

Many smaller schools have given up. Data released this week by the Department of Education showed that 440 out of 14,435 private elementary and high schools have notified DepEd that they would suspend operations this school year due to low student enrollment. Most of the schools are in Central Luzon (88), Calabarzon (67), Metro Manila (54) and Western Visayas (48). What will happen to their students, teachers and other employees?

For some of the parents in the third grader’s private school, the next problem after tuition was the cost of the gadgets needed for blended learning.

The boy got his mid-priced, brand-new laptop only a few weeks ago. It’s his first computer, but the use of digital technology is truly intuitive for the younger generations. After the first two days of classes, it looks like the boy is even having fun with his computer (with a low-priced smartphone on standby) and blended learning.

The boy is from a low-income household, but good Samaritans are helping him in his formal education. One is footing his tuition; another donated the recent model laptop; still another provided the smartphone and internet service.

On Aug. 24, he was all set for the new normal in his education.

But how many students and their parents aren’t ready, even for the Oct. 5 opening?

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The boy has been one of the top students in his school. His high grades encouraged his benefactors to foot his education expenses.

Good academic performance is one of the factors presented by some students who have turned to social media to appeal for help in getting tuition money and the gadgets needed for blended learning.

But what about those who aren’t academic achievers? Some people have banded together to raise funds for all students in certain schools or communities, regardless of academic performance.

With so many students needing help, unfortunately, some of the groups have noticed donor fatigue. Even good Samaritans have also been hit financially by the pandemic.

*      *      *

For those who can afford not to worry about funding for their education, a major problem is digital connectivity.

The third grader, for example, waited for a month for WiFi to be added to their home’s PLDT landline service. Until yesterday, the WiFi application had not been acted upon.

Last Friday, one of his benefactors decided to just buy the boy a Globe prepaid WiFi. Sadly, even the tech-savvy members of the household could not download the app to activate the WiFi service.

Really, it’s not just red tape in cell tower permits that’s the problem with our telecommunications providers.

On Sunday, the benefactor provided a Smart pocket WiFi and load. Finally, internet!

This is in Metro Manila. What’s the situation in underserved areas of the country?

And how do you apply blended learning in the lower grades? Younger children, who are unlikely to be sent by their parents to face-to-face classes in this pandemic, will need to be assisted by their parents in online and TV learning. How many parents can afford to do this, especially if there are several school-age young children? Even in the pandemic, most parents need to work the whole day. Many are low-tech and unfamiliar with their children’s lessons.

With most of the private schools already starting classes, however, there’s no turning back for public schools on Oct. 5. DepEd officials have also noted that Filipino students can’t afford to be left behind by their counterparts in other Southeast Asian countries, which have started classes, with some even allowing limited face-to-face learning.

Proponents of blended learning have pointed out that the country can never be fully ready for this emergency mode of formal education.

So bahala na si Batman, classes can no longer be put off – unless the government wants millions of students to be left behind by their peers in other schools.

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