[ANALYSIS] Balancing education risks during this pandemic

Edilberto C. de Jesus

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[ANALYSIS] Balancing education risks during this pandemic
The pandemic has made distance learning a necessary tool. But it cannot serve as the exclusive approach to education while we wait for a vaccine.

During the period of a pandemic, unhampered by vaccine, the resumption of normal classes exposes the school community to the risk of infection. Experts do not expect a vaccine to be widely available before 18 to 24 months. We need, therefore, to weigh the potential risks of a vaccine-less school reopening against the certain harm that will follow from a lengthy school lockdown. 

An extended delay in schooling will inflict immediate and long-term harm to students and their families, to schools and their personnel, and to society. The negative consequences include: the loss of between 25-75% of what students had already learned in the preceding school year; increased risks of drop-out; and the erosion of future earning potential. 

For these injuries to learners, the government cannot provide insurance or compensation. The delay of school reopening beyond August will also compel more than 80% of the private higher education institutions (HEIs) to retrench, if not to close down. Their collapse will roll back the gains government has made in improving access to the tertiary level and promoting the goal of inclusive education. (READ: No student left behind? During pandemic, education ‘only for those who can afford’)

To ensure that education continues, schools abroad have introduced various health security precautions: protective masks; temperature checks at campus entrances and exits; provision of soaps and sanitizers. 

They also reduced or canceled activities such as Physical Education sessions and on-the-job internships that involved large numbers of students or prolonged face-to-face contact, changed classroom seating arrangements and class schedules to maintain social distance. Above all, they moved to make heavier use of distance education options.  

‘Blended learning strategy’

DepEd, along with CHED, TESDA, and many school administrators and academics, believe that this approach of implementing health security measures and adopting a “blended learning strategy” would allow the reopening of schools.  

Based on this strategy, DepEd formulated a Basic Education Learning Continuity Plan (BE-LCP) and presented it to the InterAgency Task Force for its approval. IATF approved the plan on May 11 and the August 24 start of the 2020-21 schoolyear. Many private schools were prepared to follow the DepEd lead.

What appeared to impress President Duterte about the BE-LCP was the adoption of multiple distance learning options that included the delivery of printed and digital learning materials to the students, as well as  instruction via radio and television and the internet. (READ: Duterte eyes purchase of radios for students in far-flung areas during pandemic)

He assured DepEd of funds to cover the cost of these options. But he did not support the blended learning strategy. He accepted the August school start but has repeatedly rejected physical classes until learners have vaccine protection.  

Duterte’s problematic stand

The President’s stand poses a problem for DepEd and the private schools.

First, the blended learning strategy was central to the BE-CLP and blended learning, by definition, assumes the conduct of some normal classroom sessions. 

Second, the rejection of blended learning denies DepEd the ability to leverage its main strength – the force of 800,000 teachers that it can deploy for face-to-face instruction to support the implementation of distance learning options. 

Third, this support is necessary to make effective use of such options for which most students and teachers are still unfamiliar and insufficiently prepared.  

Even in developed countries with superior technology and minimal digital divide, no one has claimed the superiority of a learning process that completely abandons physical learning sessions. The pandemic has made distance learning a necessary tool. But it cannot serve as the exclusive approach to education while we wait for a vaccine.  

COVID-19 has disrupted the education of 1.6 billion students in 161 countries around the world.  McKinsey reviewed the international experience to identify the strategies used to deal with the pandemic. Shutting down schools was the most drastic response. Some countries never locked down schools. Many countries which did, are now reopening them, though a vaccine is nowhere yet in sight.  

McKinsey also noted that, despite recourse to common coping mechanisms, how specific measures were implemented varied from country to country and, indeed, from school to school. This was a rational approach, since schools varied in the constraints they faced, the resources they could deploy and their priority goals. Rather than impose one future event, like the vaccine, as a uniform condition for the reopening of all schools, should not government consider the ground realities of each school, including the public health environment it must deal with?

Why should normal classes be prohibited in the provinces, like Siquijor and Bohol, where the pandemic has not significantly penetrated? The IATF had actually approved DepEd face-to-face learning “when the local risk severity grading permits, and subject to compliance with minimum [underlining supplied] health standards.”  

Government can mandate stringent health precautions that schools must take before resuming classroom instruction. But no school can guarantee absolute immunity from infection, not when most students have to commute, crowding on the streets to catch a ride on limited public transportation services.  

Who will dare to resume classroom sessions, defying repeated presidential statements making physical classes contingent on vaccine protection? Imposing this condition effectively undermines the continuity of learning plan that DepEd and schools had hoped to pursue. – Rappler.com 

Edilberto C. de Jesus is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management.

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