Educational divide
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - October 7, 2020 - 12:00am

Fiber optic cable is now being laid out in my neighborhood, promising a boost in internet speed.

And just in time. The biggest problem raised by teachers and students alike, as public schools finally started classes last Monday under an unprecedented blended learning mode, was internet connectivity – the lack of it, the spotty service, or the price that is beyond the reach of many households.

There are dead spots in my house, but I – and I think the entire neighborhood – have internet connection. This, unfortunately, cannot be said of many areas in the country.

With the pandemic forcing the government – as in several other countries – to shift to distance learning to ensure the continuation of formal education, the digital divide and achievement gaps in education between rich and poor, already there even before the pandemic, could widen to alarming proportions.

Among the most memorable images of Day One in the 2020-2021 school year were those of the teachers at the Sto. Niño National High School in Batangas, clambering onto the roof of the school building to get a signal so they could proceed with their online classes.

The area is reportedly a weak spot for internet service. While we share the teachers’ frustration, we also take off our hat to their dedication to duty.

Equally touching are the images of grade school students turning jeepneys into their classrooms. The jeepneys are parked beside establishments or houses with internet service, allowing the children to avail themselves of free internet (surely with permission, since the kids need a password).

For the remote areas where internet connection could be at least a year away, teachers crossed rivers and seas and trekked through mountains to deliver learning modules to students without gadgets. Truly, teachers are heroic frontliners in this pandemic.

*      *      *

Seeing those images brings home the challenges of leaving no learner behind in our archipelago of 7,100 islands. Education was already a problem even before the pandemic, with discussions focused on the dismal performance of our 15-year-old high school students in reading comprehension. They had rated lowest among 79 participating states and economies in the 2018 Program for International Student Assessment. PISA assesses competencies in reading, mathematics and science.

Comprehension difficulties have aggravated connectivity problems in the pandemic normal. As classes opened, several students expressed difficulty in following instructions to operate their newly acquired gadgets because these were written in English.

A PISA reassessment of comprehension competency will have to wait as everyone adjusts to blended learning.

The Department of Education (DepEd) has trimmed the number of subjects in the public school curriculum, to ease the burdens of distance learning. Several students in private elementary schools told me there was no such reduction in their regular curriculum. This is just one area where students in the bigger private schools now enjoy an advantage over their less privileged counterparts in the public school system.

The pandemic is creating a learning gap between the haves and have-nots. The gap has always been there, but test results in recent years have indicated that public schools have been catching up in terms of the quality of education. With the pandemic, however, the gap is again widening.

The major exclusive private schools opened classes as early as July. Their students, who probably had smartphones and tablets for their fourth birthday, had no problem – and are likely even having more fun – with the shift to distance learning. The same goes for their teachers, who have long incorporated certain forms of online education into their classes.

These pupils typically have a corner – or even a room – in the house that has now been converted into a classroom.

Less-privileged students, on the other hand, are holding classes in dwellings where the kitchen, living, dining and sleeping corners might all be in just one common area. There are young siblings around, and possibly a dog and cat, all yammering away at will.

Obviously, that kind of environment is not conducive to learning. The Philippine National Police is now urging local governments or barangays to regulate noise levels in the community during class hours. But this could turn into a human rights issue if neighbors without school kids invoke their right to enjoy karaoke in their own home.

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Can children fully concentrate on their online lessons when they are accessing the internet from inside a jeepney parked beside the neighborhood shop?

On the other hand, kids these days can focus on their smartphones even while having a meal, completely oblivious to everyone seated at the lunch table, so maybe we’re underestimating their power of concentration.

A bigger problem is faced by children living in abusive family situations. School used to give them a respite from such abuse. Child welfare advocates have pointed out that pandemic lockdowns have led to a spike in cases of maltreatment, domestic violence, and various forms of domestic abuse including online sexual exploitation of children.

During debates on the wisdom of holding classes using the blended learning modalities during the pandemic, DepEd officials pointed out that formal education of children cannot be delayed too long. The main argument is that something is better than nothing, that seeing a small percentage of students being left behind in the new normal is a risk that can be taken.

The small percentage, as of the last count, translates into nearly three million students. DepEd is still hoping that there will be late enrollees until the allowed period next month. Late enrollees might be encouraged by stories of students and parents doing whatever it takes to continue the kids’ formal education.

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In the meantime, with threats from President Duterte, local governments have done what seemed impossible for years: speed up the processing of applications for the installation of cell sites or telecommunications towers.

As of Monday night, Duterte was told that 574 such applications have been approved, with zero backlog in the city of Manila. Another 420, however, remain pending nationwide.

Duterte was told that cell site projects could now enjoy automatic rollout, with all documentation or clearances even from homeowner associations waived, except for building and clearance permits.

I’m waiting to see how this will play out in the exclusive gated villages of Makati – battlegrounds between the telcos and groups of wealthy and influential homeowners.

Children in these villages surely had a near-seamless transition to distance learning in their exclusive schools.

But for millions of underprivileged children, every day is a struggle to connect to their classes.

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