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Better than nothing

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - March 19, 2021 - 12:00am

A 10-year-old boy I know who excelled in Robotics pre-pandemic is enjoying his online classes in a mid-priced private school in Metro Manila.

Occasionally, his father helps him with his laptop plus some of his schoolwork. But for the most part the boy is on his own. He misses the company of classmates, but his home has a spacious yard where he can play with a neighbor of his age and a dog.

Nearly all his classmates in the previous year are enrolled, but a handful are not. He knows the whereabouts of only one, whose parents were forced to transfer their son to a public school because they could not afford the gadgets and internet service for distance learning in the private school. Students in public schools at least can opt for non-digital learning.

With the pandemic, there are only about 20 students left in their class. Educators say this is an ideal class size for distance learning: the teacher can still pay attention to each student while the school can remain financially viable.

This, however, is not the situation in many schools. At the start of this extraordinarily difficult school year, the Department of Education reported that over two million students failed to enroll. DepEd said lack of access to gadgets and the internet as well as parents’ financial difficulties were the principal reasons.

Since then, there has been no definitive study on how the children (and teachers) are faring in this large-scale implementation of blended learning. But there have been numerous reports about the difficulties encountered by students, teachers and parents alike.

*      *      *

Last year there were spirited debates on the wisdom of shifting to blended learning nationwide as the COVID pandemic raged. People worried about the health of children and teachers if face-to-face classes would resume. But there were also serious concerns about the impact on children of a yearlong break in formal education, and the calamitous impact on the earnings of teachers and educational institutions.

In the end, the DepEd’s argument prevailed – that something is better than nothing, that we should give blended learning a chance.

And so we did.

Now, six months into the schoolyear, even DepEd officials are acknowledging that blended learning is not working for many students, and even for teachers and parents. There are discussions on the feasibility of conducting limited face-to-face classes in areas under modified general community quarantine.

In Singapore, I’ve been informed that students now attend face-to-face classes alternately, with one class group going to school for a week while the rest participate online. But the size of Singapore makes the city-state easier to manage, and its vaccination program is way ahead of ours.

In our country, some medical and health-related schools have been allowed to resume classes on site, with the belief that their students know enough to strictly observe COVID health protocols.

But with all the coronavirus variants now emerging (including one believed to be a Philippine mutation), blended learning will likely remain in place for the remainder of the schoolyear.

This means about five more months of the struggles experienced by students, teachers and parents alike.

*      *      *

Children with the means, who grew up playing with gadgets, who have a quiet space or their own room at home for learning, and who don’t need help from their parents are breezing through distance learning. Like the 10-year-old boy, they are probably even enjoying the novelty of the learning mode.

Several exclusive private schools opened about a month ahead of public schools last year, conducting 100 percent distance education.

For the less privileged, on the other hand, we’ve seen many of the reports. Their first hurdle was the required gadgetry; kids naturally didn’t want to get left out of the digital shift.

Some local government units distributed computers and smartphones for free; companies and private individuals also pitched in. The 10-year-old boy got his brand-new laptop from his mother’s employer. In low-income communities, some business enterprises shared passwords to provide free internet access to children in the neighborhood.

Even with the gadgetry, however, the learning itself was problematic. There are concepts that can be tricky to explain through distance education. Class participation online is awkward, discouraging clarificatory questions.

Also, having their children in school gives parents a break from parenting, allowing them to earn a living, attend to housework, socialize and relax. Blended learning imposes on parents the burden of greater participation in educating their children.

This has been a tough challenge for parents with limited education and can’t understand their children’s lessons. Several grade school children – and parents – have wailed in media interviews that they wanted to give up.

It can be particularly challenging for those with several school-age children, who attend online classes at the same time in the same cramped space at home.

Karaoke was banned during class hours. But children in crowded dwellings are still distracted by neighborhood noise – normal human conversation, howling dogs, wailing children, passing vehicles, and ordinary household sounds such as the clatter of pots and pans during cooking.

Children in such crowded households are the ones who most need a conducive learning environment that is best provided in a school classroom.

Unfortunately, in Metro Manila, these are also the cramped communities where COVID cases are now surging, making the resumption of even limited face-to-face classes more remote.

The pandemic has widened the education gap between rich and poor in our country. We have millions of students who are being left behind even as they try to adopt to distance learning.

Only time will tell if this experiment with blended learning will prove to be better than nothing.

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SCAM ALERT: Some sleazebags are using The Philippine Star and my name to shake down companies and individuals with a warning about ad placements in our newspaper. I have nothing to do with ad placements in The STAR and there is no one in the paper with the email address philstargalvez@gmail.com or the phone numbers 8527-6866 / 0931-850-4293. If you receive a letter from these con artists, you may want to seek help from the cyber crime units of the police or National Bureau of Investigation.

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