Pandemic pedagogy

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar (The Philippine Star) - February 2, 2021 - 12:00am

While children and young people have, for the most part, been spared the brunt of COVID infections, they have been amongst those most deeply affected by this unprecedented worldwide pandemic. This has been most keenly seen in the way schooling has been transformed over the past few months, with students and teachers being shifted to either a blended learning setup or a fully remote learning setup, depending on the resources available. Students emerged from a summer of quarantine and into a vastly different learning environment. They – as well as their teachers, school administrators and parents – were asked not only to adjust rapidly to these changes, but to do so while dealing with standard lessons and their own anxieties regarding COVID-19.

All that presumes the child was even enrolled in school last year. Many were not – the latest enrollment data reveal that only 25.03 million students enrolled in elementary schools this school year, from a student population of over 27 million last year (many of the non-enrollees were from private schools). In addition, more than 800 private elementary and high schools have temporarily stopped operations due to low enrollment. This is a dual tragedy, bringing both a decreased access to education and massive job losses during a period when every family needs regular income.

We are fortunate to live in a time when the technology exists to enable more efficient and interactive means of blended/remote learning. However, the fact remains that this technology is not accessible to most. Having a smart phone that is capable of accessing social media does not mean the device (or your service plan) can handle four-hour Zoom lectures or a dozen simultaneous browser windows. The United Nations estimates that half of the world’s population (3.6 billion people) still lack an internet connection and that the move to digital learning was “excluding large numbers of learners, amplifying existing educational disparities and posing a risk to hard-won understandings of education as a human right, a public service and a common good.”

Even for those who have the necessary technology to seamlessly access the internet and participate in remote/digital learning, there was still the human element to consider. Repurposing lessons to be remotely delivered often required teachers and administrators to learn new skills in record time. But much of the burden was also placed outside the school, in the home – the place which became the new classroom for many. This meant that many parents were required to devote much more time and energy to supervising and assisting their children (particularly the younger ones), whether it be in navigating technology, printing materials or providing the personal attention that the child was unable to receive remotely. Again, this served to heighten existing inequalities – not every parent could afford to take time away from their work (whether at home or not) to serve as a supplementary teacher for their child. Not every parent could afford to buy their children electronic devices that can be used for online learning. Even for those parents who were able to, it could be a struggle.

Since the start of the lockdown, I have come across complaints from other parents who are having difficulty coping with the demands of online learning, especially for those who have several children. Those whose children go to private schools question why the tuition and fees remain the same when most of the teaching needs to be done by the parents. On top of that there is an additional financial burden brought about by the need to purchase devices that are suitable for online classes or to prepare a space for their children to attend class. Aside from this, the expectations on parents to devote time to preparing the materials their children need; to submit their children’s work and to teach their children their lessons, have also been a heavy burden on the parents.

It can get very stressful when several children need the parent’s attention at the same time and the parents have to juggle this on top of their jobs. However, I can imagine that teachers and administrators are also having a challenging time and we just do the most that we can to help each other and to help our children. My husband Mark and I are fortunate that we are not having difficulty with our daughter Emma, who is just in kindergarten. She only has two subjects so it is easy to manage the requirements. Mark and I also share the responsibility of helping our daughter with her lessons. The school is also considerate enough to prepare her materials at the start of the term, which makes things easier for the parents.

Yet even under the best of circumstances, it’s important to remember that remote or distance learning cannot stand as a full substitute for traditional classes for every student, nor for every circumstance. Students with special needs, for one, are frequently more responsive to hands-on attention and in-person learning from trained specialists. DepEd statistics reveal that there are more than 5 million Filipino children with disabilities nationwide, which make up a significant portion of students with special needs.

All of these difficulties build upon the problems our students were already facing, even before 2020. Based on the results of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study 2019, our fourth graders ranked the least out of students in 58 countries. Another 2019 study, the Southeast Asia Primary Learning Metrics, which focused on Grade 5 students, revealed that only 10 percent of Filipino students surveyed had developed proficiency in reading, only 17 percent in mathematics and only one percent in writing.

It’s clear that we face many challenges in both the short and long term. While early on, most of us were scrambling to adapt to new realities, we are now almost a year into quarantine protocols, and half a school year into this term. It’s important moving forward that we take what we’ve learned, not just from this exceptional period of schooling but also from earlier criticisms, and apply them towards the future. It is imperative that we take advantage of this opportunity to make systematic changes to our educational system.

In my next column, I’ll try to examine ways we can make sure that our children return, not just to “ordinary” schooling, but better schooling.

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