No student left behind? During pandemic, education ‘only for those who can afford’

Bonz Magsambol

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No student left behind? During pandemic, education ‘only for those who can afford’
While there have been obvious gaps in education in the past, the pandemic highlights a stark divide: access to education for those who can afford it and those who can't

MANILA, Philippines – The coronavirus pandemic has turned the spotlight on one of the problems that hasn’t been resolved until now: making education accessible to all, under any circumstances.

At around the same time in 2019, Aika*, who is a public elementary school teacher in Laguna, was excited about the school opening. Before the opening of classes, she made sure that everything was ready – from her visual aids down to her school uniforms.

Just like the past years, she prepared herself to take care of students, especially those who needed extra help in understanding lessons and studying on empty stomachs.

Teaching is a challenging profession, but it’s more challenging when it’s in a public school, she said.

“May mga estudyante talaga ako na walang baon minsan. Pero mahirap mag-aral nang walang laman ang tiyan. Siyempre intindihin ko rin ’yun at gagawan ng paraan kasi gusto ko na komportable ang learning environment for them,” Aika added.

(Some of my students sometimes don’t have anything to eat in school. It’s difficult to study on an empty stomach. Of course it’s a concern and I’d find ways to deal with it because I want them to have a comfortable learning environment.)

But this year was different. She was anxious more than excited.

From her 42 students in 2019, only 20 had expressed interest in enrolling as the Department of Education (DepEd) announced that class opening for the school year 2020-2021 on August 24 would use a blended approach to learning as the country deals with the pandemic.

According to Aika, most of the students and parents cited as reasons for not going to school in August their lack of access to the internet and technology at home, no work to provide for the family, and safety – given fears of contracting COVID-19.

Aika said that learning in this time of the pandemic is only for those who can afford it.

“‘Yung bills nila tumambak dahil sa lockdown so ang priority nila ay makahanap ng work. Kung baga sa ngayon hindi nila priority ang education,” she added.

(Some of the parents are now prioritizing looking for jobs so they could pay bills which have piled up during lockdown. Education is not their top priority now.)

As the government limits face-to-face interaction and prohibits mass gatherings, DepEd’s blended learning approach would be implemented with students learning from online, television, radio, and printed materials.

But classes might still be done physically in some areas, depending on the gravity of the outbreak by then.

Deped Secretary Leonor Briones said that distance learning is a major component of learning delivery for the incoming school year. Distance learning means lessons will be delivered outside the traditional face-to-face setup.

In areas where classes would be conducted face-to-face, DepEd said that physical distancing and health safety protocols should be observed.

“Kung ipapatupad man ang face-to-face sa mga low-risk areas, ipapatupad ang physical distancing. Ang minimum na pag-hold ng classes ngayong darating na taon ay, at the very least, will be distance learning, may kasamang blended learning,” DepEd Undersecretary Nepomuceno Malalauan said.

(If a face-to-face setup is implemented in low-risk areas, physical distancing will be observed. Most classes this coming school year would be distance learning, with blended learning, at the very least.)

Safety first

When DepEd announced that classes would open in August, 31-year-old Richelle Bacelisco was one of those who was strongly opposed to it.

Bacelisco wrote an open letter to DepEd, urging the department not to rush the opening of classes. Among the reasons she cited was the absence of a COVID-19 vaccine. “Vaccine muna bago Eskwela” became hot on social media as her post got over 70,000 shares and is getting even more.

“Ang education makakapaghintay ‘yan. Pero hindi ko pa i-risk ang safety ng mga anak ko kapag lumabas na lang sila. Natatakot ako na baka mamaya pag-uwi nito galing sa school eh may COVID-19 na pala,” Bacelisco told Rappler.

(Education can wait. I’m not risking the safety of children when they go out. I fear that when they attend school, they will come home infected with COVID-19.)

Vaccines for the coronavirus being developed by other countries will take about 6 to 12 months or even 1 and 1/2 years to be ready for commercial use. (READ: Coronavirus drugs: Who’s doing what, and when they might come)

Bacelisco said that she and her husband have decided that their two grade schoolers would stop for a year as they don’t want to risk their safety over education. They live in Antipolo, which is an adjacent city to the coronavirus hotbed Metro Manila.


But health is just one factor. Bacelisco’s eldest is an incoming grade 5 student while her second child is an incoming grade 2 student. She was set to start her work as a call center agent last March, but was put on hold due to the lockdown. Her husband works now in a food delivery service.

“Ang focus muna namin ngayon ay mabuhay, dahil sa ngayon walang-wala na po kami talaga,” Bacelisco said. (Our focus now is just to live, because we don’t have anything right now.)

Aside from not having stable access to the internet, Bacelisco said her two children also don’t have their own smartphones or tablets.

Physical distancing in the small private school where her children were studying wouldn’t also be possible. Bacelisco said that a classroom in that school was being shared by 35 students at most.

“Kahit private school kasi ito, maraming pumapasok dahil malayo sa amin ang public school. So nag-take kami ng risk na sige magbayad kami ng tuition fee, para lang safe ang aming anak. Hindi namin sila hahayaan na maglakad sila nang mag-isa. Pero ngayon na wala rin talaga kaming trabaho, masakit man sa amin, kailangan nilang huminto,”  Bacelisco said.

(Even though my children were attending a private school, there were still a lot of students because a public school is far from us. We took the risk of enroling them in a private school and paying tuition just so they would be safe. We won’t let them go to school on their own. But now, since we don’t have stable jobs, though it’s painful for us, they need to stop schooling.)

Internet access

While online learning is only one option for the blended approach, data shows that not all households in the Philippines have access to the internet.

Citing data from the National Telecommunications Commission, DepEd said that as of December 2019, 67% of the Philippine population have access to the internet. 

Numerous posts on Facebook and Twitter have gone viral, showing Filipino students climbing trees, or even mountains, just to get good internet signal for their classes. Such posts have outraged both netizens and student groups who have called out educational institutions for prioritizing academic output over student welfare. (READ: During pandemic, student climbs a mountain to send class requirement)

But access to technology is just part of a bigger problem.

Role of parents

According to Aika, in a blended learning approach, parents would have to play an active role in the learning process. They would be the one to facilitate and guide their children through the modular lessons that would be sent to students while doing distance learning.

Students would also be asked to report to school once a week for the teacher’s assessment.

Aika, however, said the distance learning setup would be difficult for public schools.

“Meron akong parents na no read, no write. Kaya nila pinag-aaral daw ang mga anak nila ay para hindi maging katulad nila. So sino ang magtuturo sa mga bata? Napakahirap ng ganitong setup na modular learning. Hindi lahat ng parents capable gabayan ang anak nila,” Aika said.

(There are parents who are no read, no write. They are sending their children to school because they don’t want children to be like them. Who would teach the students now at home? This kind of modular learning is really difficult. Not all parents are capable of guiding their children.)

While distance learning has to be self-paced to some extent, keeping students motivated enough is another issue.

In an interview with Rappler, education economist and president of Far Eastern University Michael Alba said that “remote learning” will basically be “homeschooling” and this is where the problem lies.

“Because of the kids’ short attention spans, an adult has to supervise classes and class activities whether online, TV, or radio,” Alba said. (READ: PCOO offers gov’t TV, radio stations to deliver lessons – Briones)

Alba added that teachers are trained to develop rapport with their pupils and parents may not have the skill or patience to fill that role.

“They may have a different relationship or rapport with their children. So pupils will miss their teachers,” Alba said.

Alba added: “Our students tend to be fragile. With a hint of a weather disturbance, they clamor for the suspension of classes. What should be included in the intended learning outcomes of the curriculum is agency – the inclination and propensity to take purposeful initiative, which is the opposite of helplessness.”

According to Alba, if students have agency, they will strive to meet their learning goals, rather than being “passive recipients of instructions.”

Reforms needed

For Love Basillote, executive director of the Philippine Business for Education, the education system in the country needs to “put learning at the heart of our interventions.”

Basillote cited the low results of PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) given to Filipino students in 2018 as reason why the education system in the country needs reform.

PISA results showed that only 19% of students achieved the minimum proficiency level of Overall Reading Literacy, 19% achieved the minimum proficiency level of Overall Math Literacy, while 22% attained Level 2 or higher in Science.

“All of this shows that we need large-scale systemic reform, and this global pandemic has highlighted the urgency of this,” Basillote said.

Meanwhile, Raymond Basilio, secretary general of the Alliance for Concerned Teachers, said that the blended learning approach is only for independent learners.

“For us to know if a student is an independent learner, we need to conduct a test. Now, here’s the catch. We’re going to implement blended learning from kinder to senior high school. Are we sure that they are all independent learners?” Basilio asked.

Explaining the practical side of it, Basilio said, “Sa isang classroom, mayroon kang 40 students. Mahirap na nga i-manage, how do we deal with that online? Reality question talaga dito ang quality.” 

(A classroom with 40 students is really hard to manage, how do we do that online? Quality of education is a reality question here.)

Basilio said that this is the main reason why they’re asking the DepEd to review its approach to education during this pandemic.

“Blended learning should only be used as a stopgap measure, we should be working towards normalization. Ang normal po natin ay hindi new normal na online learning, but ang normal natin ay ‘yung face-to-face (The normal we have is not the new normal which is online learning, but the face-to-face learning),” Basilio said.

DepEd earlier said that they were preparing teachers for the blended learning approach through different webinars.

‘No student should be left behind’

While Aika worries that prolonged class suspension might affect students’ learning, she appeals to DepEd to suspend classes until the department can come up with a more inclusive approach to learning and when the government can effectively stem the spread of COVID-19.

“Sa akin gusto ko freeze muna sana. Kasi hindi ako agree sa sinasabi nila [DepEd] na walang matututunan ang mga bata kapag nasa bahay lang sila. Ang learning ay hindi lang sa school,” Aika said.

(I hope classes will freeze for now. Because I don’t agree with what DepEd says that students won’t learn anything if they stay at home. Learning is not limited to school.)

Aika added that she is willing to print out worksheets for her students and provide them learning materials to make sure that they have something to do while at home. But this, according to Aika, is just an intervention, and would not be used for students’ assessment.

Bacelisco, meanwhile, appeals to DepEd to give them more time to rise from the crisis as most parents like her are still struggling to make ends meet for their families.

“Humihingi po ako sa DepEd ng konting panahon para makapag-umpisa muna kami. Maaaring sa January 2021 na po muna na mag-umpisa. By that time, baka napag-aralan na po ng mga magulang ang bagong sistema sa pag aaral at nakapag-adjust na kami sa bagong buhay,” Baselisco said.

(I’m asking DepEd for more time so we could start anew. Maybe we could start classes by January 2021. By that time, maybe parents might have already studied the new system of learning and would have adjusted to the new life post-pandemic.)

For Basilio, the DepEd should conduct dialogues with stakeholders and hear their sides for the implementation of an August class opening.

While he recognized the importance of the continuity of learning, Basilio said that the fear for safety and the concerns of the students and teachers about the conduct of classes during this pandemic are also valid.

During a televised briefing on Thursday, May 21, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said that while DepEd has set the schedule of opening of classes on August 24, the government is still open to making the necessary adjustments.

Bagama’t may petsa na po ang DepEd, ayan po ay subject pa rin for [review]. Dapat nasa GCQ na ang mga lugar bago magbukas ang pasok. Hindi naman ilalagay sa aberya ang ating mga kabataan kung kinakailangan po huwag muna buksan dahil mataas pa ang mga kaso o baka magka-second wave, hindi po muna bubuksan. Baka po magkaroon ng ganyan na decision,” Roque said.

(Although DepEd already has a date for the class opening, this is still subject for review. Areas should be under GCQ for [physical] opening of classes. We won’t put our children at risk. If it is necessary not to open first because of a high number of cases or if there might be a possibility of a second wave, we won’t open classes yet. Maybe there would be such a decision.)

While there have been obvious gaps in the Philippine educational system in the past, the current pandemic highlights a stark divide: access to education for those who can afford and those who can’t. –

*Name has been changed for privacy

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Bonz Magsambol

Bonz Magsambol covers the Philippine Senate for Rappler.