FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

School begins this week whatever that statement means.

Since the start of the pandemic, getting the children back to school never seemed to be an item of urgency. As a result, the Philippines is now one of only two countries in the world that has not resumed in-person schooling.

The only other country, Venezuela, will soon resume in-person classes. That will leave the Philippines alone in this unwholesome list of countries unable to resume formal classes.

This only shows how far behind our social policies are. Remember, we are also the last country outside the Vatican banning divorce. There is clearly something wrong with us. Science and modern sensibility seem to strike us last.

It is easy to understand the politics of this. Children have no political influence. It is easy to order them imprisoned in their homes, which is where they have been for the past 18 months. There are layers of repression and social control, from the state to parental authority, keeping them there.

The next generation of Filipinos is kept in the caves. They are missing out not only on formal education but all the edifying social interaction that surrounds it. They are not only kept unlearned but also in deep distress.

This pandemic brought with it oppressive conditions. The bulk of those are borne by our children. The children, on whom the future of this nation is invested, will be left deeply scarred by this sorry episode. Yet no one seems to be standing up for them.

Since schools were shut last year, the DepEd has taken control of how they will be educated. The entire educational system was supposed to have shifted to “blended learning,” a combination of hard copies of learning kits (called Self-learning Modules) and online instruction.

The modules have been the subjects of scandals the past few months, mainly for substandard content. Online instruction, in an environment of poor internet connections and severe lack of gadgets, has been spotty at best. As in most other things, the children of the poor suffer more from the double whammy of poverty and a weak educational system.

The weaknesses of our educational system we know about. Although we have a few students who routinely win honors in international competitions for mathematics, most of our students have poor numeracy and literacy skills. The quality of science instruction they receive is not world-class.

With all the weaknesses of our educational system, it is a wonder that a few young Filipinos not only subsist but thrive in international settings. Much of the shortcomings of our educational system are compensated for by the pure heroism of our schoolteachers. Underpaid and overworked, they carry out their missions with zeal.

At the start of this pandemic, most of us thought this would be a short emergency, a few months at most. Then we can all click back to normalcy with the old institutions simply resuming where they left off.

There was really no scientific basis for expecting this pandemic to be a brief interregnum in our lives. We just thought it would be because it was more comforting to think so.

Now we know better. This pesky virus refuses to become extinct. The waves of infection and the mutation of the virus could go on for years. The “new normal” is not going to be post-pandemic; it is going to be coexistence with the virus.

The DepEd, I imagine, has been consumed the past months producing their “Self-learning Modules” and their online production. But what have they done to prepare for our in-person education system to be ready for the likely “new normal?”

Is there an agreed protocol for when classes may resume and students may be allowed to congregate?

Have uniform standards been set to ensure our schools are safe places for the students to return?

What role may parents play in preparing our children for in-person learning?

What role does the community play in helping ease the transition to face-to-face schooling?

There does not seem to be a substantial public discussion on these concerns. We seem to think we simply switch on schooling when conditions improve. That is not how things will happen. What is more likely is a slow transition, featuring face-to-face interaction on a staggered basis. This will complement “blended learning” until we are able to fully shift back to full classroom work.

The DepEd should lead the advocacy work on behalf of our trapped schoolchildren. They should push our policymakers to open up the schools even if only on a staggered basis. They should devise ways to make the schools safe for return to strengthen their case before the decision-makers.

We see none of this happening. Either the DepEd is happy with the confusion accompanying “blended learning” or they are simply averse to rocking the boat. In which case, our children are without an advocate in the upper rungs of government where all decisions seem to be centralized.

We do not know how that decision-making process works. What we know is that we are the only country in the world still requiring people to wear face shields, whatever its actual epidemiological value might be.

The powerful decision-makers seem inclined to make those who do not complain suffer the worst. Since our children are not complaining about their extended vacation and house arrest, the policies will not change in their favor – even after whatever reasons there are for making them do so already lapsed.

We would like to hear the DepEd lead the clamor for bringing our children back to schools.

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