[OPINION] Safety and material needs first, not just ‘schooling versus learning’
President Duterte’s statement (which by now may have already morphed into some other pronouncement or policy) about not resuming classes without a vaccine for COVID-19 aroused quite an interest to say the least. Mr Luz intervened with "Don’t confuse learning with schooling," a very catchy slogan, but a slogan nonetheless. It leads readers to believe that continuing learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic is merely a matter of changing mindsets and culture – absent any presentation or perhaps even demonstration of the realities faced by children, families, teachers, and even school communities.
So to first respond to the claimed dichotomy of schooling versus learning as a medium versus objective or content issue, a brief review of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs may be in order. Maslow highlighted that people are motivated by needs that may be conceived as a pyramid: before achieving more sophisticated needs like self-actualization, certain primary or more basic needs (like physiological and safety needs) must first be met.
This is the crux of my response: where Mr Luz claims confusion between schooling and learning, I contend that it is an issue about addressing material needs first, especially in light of this pandemic, before any meaningful learning can happen. Are we merely concerned with continuing instruction or meaningful education? Perhaps we should ask what the situation is of our learners, teachers, and families before calling for "smart and creative" solutions.
The school situation
There is one classroom per 45 students, one teacher for every 33 students in elementary, and one teacher for every 26 students in the secondary level in 2018. Knowing the risks involved, options of returning to the classroom setting are out the window. DepEd Order 7 s., 2020 mandates 15-20 students per class, posing more problems than being an actual solution. Will we hire more teachers? DepEd has been called on in the past to fill positions to deload teachers so they can focus on teaching. Additionally, will more classrooms be built? How will class schedules look like?
The family situation
In 2018 the proportion of poor families was at 16.6 million, and with the current economic downturn this may be worse now, especially with job losses. Social Weather Stations (SWS) found “that 16.7% or an estimated 4.2 million Filipino families experienced involuntary hunger at least once in the past 3 months.” This economic insecurity during the lockdown is translating into psychological insecurity. SWS also found “that 87% of Filipinos are worried that anyone in their immediate family might catch COVID-19.” So how conducive is the home as a learning environment?
The digital bullet
Digital and distance learning has been proposed as a solution, but is the Philippines ready? As of January 2020 there are 73 million internet users in the Philippines representing 63% internet penetration, 73 million active users of social media, and 173.2 million mobile connections more than 1.5 times our population. Internet speed is a different matter; perhaps part of the reason why Filipinos on average spend 9 hours and 45 minutes online is because of slow internet. Out of 139 countries surveyed, the Philippines ranks 121st for mobile internet speed and 110th for fixed broadband speed. On the other hand, 16 million are without electricity. Overall the Philippines ranked 63rd of 100 countries surveyed on the internet inclusivity index of the Economist Intelligence Unit. This measure includes Availability (57th), Affordability (89th), Relevance (59th), and Readiness (59th).
Can traditional broadcast media step in?
Ideally traditional broadcast media may be an important stop-gap measure in addressing access to learning and information materials. However, ABS-CBN, which has the wider reach in our broadcast duopoly, has been summarily shutdown by the Duterte administration last May 5. Its franchise is still being held hostage by bureaucracy and finger-pointing in government.
Assuming that we have both traditional broadcast and digital media available, still another issue would be the lack or absence of material that may be used for distance learning. The availability and access of materials in the DepEd Learning Portal may also be bogged down by issues of access to the internet. According to the Alliance of Concerned Teachers, the DepEd has recently said, “the agency will have about 1.1 million laptops and tablets for some 21.4 million learners and 190,574 laptops for about 900,000 public school teachers." The sheer numbers reveal the utter unreadiness of DepEd to shift to distance or digital learning. (READ: No need to buy gadgets, printed materials will be given – DepEd)
The learners: Leaving no one behind?
It is quite an easy slogan to call for distance and digital learning at this time of social distancing. But looking at the economic situation and combining that with our digital situation may produce a sobering reminder that there still exists a gaping digital divide and socio-economic divide. Insisting on this digital fix to education under lockdown may end with the digital divide further widening the socio-economic divide.
Our current situation prior to the pandemic has persistently left children behind. In a 2018 study it has been shown that 5.3% of children are out of school – 4.55% for primary, 7.32% for lower secondary, with the highest incidence coming from upper secondary at 20.23%. The same study showed that by region, ARMM and SOCCKSARGEN have the highest overall out of school children (OOSC). By age, 16-17 year olds comprise 22.3% of the OOSC. The dropout rates 12.5% for primary and 11.5% for lower secondary with the prime reason being lack of personal interest. This may be explained by household poverty and their environment.
More than just a tech fix
Distance education relies heavily on the motivation of the learner and the support system in the home. The economic situation and worries associated with health and safety need to be primarily addressed if we are to hope for meaningful learning to take place. A tech fix alone does not constitute a solution to the real concerns, worries, and conditions of parents, teachers, and learners.
A grounded solution
Should we wait for a vaccine and indefinitely halt learning? It’s not really an issue of forcing the pace on digitization just to continue learning in lieu of schooling. It is a matter of addressing the material constraints before thinking about school opening in whatever form. The Alliance of Concerned Teachers rightly argue that before any sort of learning modality is to resume, government and the private sector need to first ensure 5 important prerequisites.
Comprehensive public health and socio-economic measures. Mass testing should form the basis of population-level public health measures to form the basis for further interventions such as contact tracing, treatment, and eventually isolation to prevent further spread. Socio-economic support and aid for teachers, education workers, and members of the community affected by the lockdown and its attendant loss of opportunities and incomes need to be in place.
Ensure safe schools. School health, hygiene, and safety need to be prioritized.
Access and quality education. Government should fully fund the different learning modalities that would ensure the continuity of learning amid the pandemic.
Protection and promotion of labor rights. Ensure occupational health and job security of teachers and education workers.
Democratic consultation and participation. Ensure broad-based participatory decision and policy making on the issue of school openings and learning continuity. School communities especially parent-teacher associations, teacher’s organizations, and unions need to be fully engaged and empowered in the formulation of policies pertinent to education amid this pandemic.
So, instead of splitting hairs between schooling or learning, maybe we should first address urgent material needs and gaps in governance that are not all in the mind but are felt on the ground. – Rappler.com
Rainier Astin R. Sindayen is undertaking his MA in Education (Educational Psychology) at the College of Education, University of the Philippines-Diliman.