Almost two years since the COVID-19 pandemic forced educational institutions in the country to shift to a remote learning system, Saint Louis University (SLU) student Rin Payno is still struggling to cope with the new setup.
She said that besides the technical difficulties they experience with online learning, they also have to contend with exorbitant school fees.
“Kahit na nabawasan ang kita ng aming mga magulang [ngayong pandemya], wala pong nagbago sa aming mga bayarin. Kung tutuusin po, lalong nadagdagan ang mga ito dahil sa distance learning,” said the first-year medical laboratory student.
(While our family’s income decreased during the pandemic, our school fees remained the same. In fact, our expenses increased because of distant learning.)
According to her, they continue to pay fees for facilities and other school functions even when studying remotely.
Payno added, “the overwhelming academic workload diminishes the quality of education and defeats the purpose of learning.”
She shared that they receive 10 to 15 tasks a week, which some instructors consider standard for their program. However, she and her schoolmates find the work “too much for their time and energy.”
“Perhaps some of the people think that it all boils down to time and resource management… [But,] it takes too much time and energy, mainly because we only meet some of our instructors once or twice a week. Most of the time, we have to teach ourselves or rely on our family members who are unfamiliar with our lessons,” she explained.
She said that while distance learning lessened the risk of COVID-19 exposure, their health still deteriorates because they are “forced to skip meals and sacrifice hours of sleep to meet deadlines.”
Concern that “attending school [has] become more about meeting deadlines than genuinely learning and discovering what we are good at or passionate about” and its toll on mental health, Payno joined the protest on Saturday, October 30, at the SLU Main Gate.
Around 400 students, mainly from SLU, held a program and lit candles to call on university officials to immediately grant their request to ease academic requirements and online classes. The protest caught the attention of Baguio’s community and officials, with student councils calling for a week-long city-wide academic break.
The protest came after the school’s administration failed to act on students’ requests to ease school requirements.
“Despite endless calls for #AcademicBreakNowSLU, the administration has once again failed to show its students compassion; the very principle we are taught as students of the University…. With countless other schools being able to care for their students, we ask why The Light of The North can’t do the same?” the SLU’s Supreme Student Council (SSC) said in a statement.
“Your lack of communication and compassion has severely impacted not only the mental health of the student population, but their lives and futures as well. We have had enough and we will no longer wait on empty promises. We will firmly stand on what the studentry deserves,” the SSC stated.
SLU-SSC vice president Sean Ochave recalled that the urging for the easing of academic load in the university started in 2020, during the middle of the school year.
“Back then, we were asking the administration to give us consideration in submitting academic requirements as we cannot cope with the influx of submissions,” he narrated.
However, he said the administration did not respond positively to their request.
“Ang nangyari po is sa compassion and consideration ng professors dumepende ang students. Nakiusap po kami sa mga professors to extend deadlines,” Ochave added.
(What happened is students depended on the compassion and consideration of professors. We pleaded with our professors to extend the deadlines.)
City-wide academic break
Student councils of the four biggest universities in the city sent a letter to city officials urging for a one-week break from synchronous and asynchronous workloads.
“The recent happenings have been detrimental to students’ lives, especially interns, and their mental health,” said the October 30 letter.
Student body presidents from SLU, University of the Cordilleras (UC), University of Baguio (UB), University of the Philippines Baguio (UPB), and the National Union of Students of the Philippines (NUSP) Cordillera signed the letter addressed to Mayor Benjamin Magalong, Sangguniang Kabataan Federated President Levy Lloyd Orcales, and Congressional Representative Mark Go.
“We highly suggest having the academic break on November 12-17 as these days will enable students to relieve academic pressure,” the letter said.
“We believe that quality education comes when students and faculty can freely think and do activities. We can’t expect quality output if students and faculty are hindered from having a break to regain their sanity,” the letter stated.
In addition to the continuing restrictions brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, the student councils said many students were affected by Severe Tropical Storm Maring. They also raised the heavy workload of students, that forced them to use their Sunday break for their academic requirements, “compromising their physical and mental health.”
“(T)here were confirmed suicide cases due to the academic pressure and stress. Some rumored cases are still under investigation. Regardless of the number, two youths giving up their precious lives because of academic pressure is still alarming to our institutions and the whole community,” the letter said.
Ochave said SLU and UB student councils initiated the letter.
“We then reached out to other schools and joined forces to lobby the call to the city government. The LGU (Baguio City) has been responsive and has set a meeting with student council presidents and (school) administrations on November 2,” he added.
Just past midnight on Sunday, the SLU administration published its response on Facebook on the student protest, which captured the attention of the Baguio public.
“The administration, as well as the faculty, have painstakingly ensured that the needs of the students are taken into account in the context of the challenges of flexible learning while making sure that quality education is at the forefront of their learning,” the university stated.
School officials also assured the public that they have always ensured not on the academic needs of students but also their “mental health, welfare, and safety.”
The administration also underscored that they work closely with the deans, department heads, and faculty “for referrals of students with special and particular needs in order for them to feel that they are not alone and that we are in this together.”
While SLU expressed concern on reports of “alleged cases of self-harm,” school administrators maintained that the information remains unverified and “caution is imperative in making and sharing” these reports.
The school said they already had a dialogue with the student body before the candlelight protest regarding the request and agreed to a follow-up talk on November 9.
“Rest assured that requests are embraced with understanding and utmost compassion. We thus request for everyone’s sobriety as we navigate towards a resolution that is fair, just, and humane,” the SLU administration said.
Ochave said the mounting complaints from students about their mental health prompted them to meet school officials personally on October 27. “But with the continuing reports we needed to act quickly because we could no longer wait for November 9,” he added.
SLU-SSC President Mystica Rose Angelica Bucad remains hopeful that the administration will act on their request earlier than promised.
“The statement from the admin may not sound reassuring but it helps me personally to know that they were also alarmed on the matter, and that they needed to address it,” she said.
“The students are really on their ultimatum in asking for this break. The SSC somehow still tries to keep ourselves together as we need to be firm on our stand and our calls,” she added. – Rappler.com
Sherwin de Vera is a Luzon-based journalist and an awardee of the Aries Rufo Journalism Fellowship.