[ANALYSIS] School opening 2020: Immediate concerns, longer-term structural reforms

We are preparing for school opening in late August 2020. We know there will be a major disruption in the education system. But in fact, we will need to prepare for 3 disruptions in basic education (K-12) over 3 time periods. (READ: New law allows Duterte to reopen schools later than August)

Disruption 1 – The postponement of the school opening, which has pushed back the start of classes by two months. By so doing, the school closing will also be pushed back and will end in late April 2021, around the start of the hottest months of the year.

Disruption 2 – The change from face-to-face learning to distance learning, whether online or blended learning.  This is anticipated to be for the first two quarters of the school year but could extend indefinitely depending on how the country deals with this pandemic. (This is not likely to be soon, based on the current experience and poor systemic handling of responses to the coronavirus by the government.)

Disruption 3 – A disruption at home as families deal with the home-schooling part of distance learning. Home environments may not be as conducive to learning for an estimated 6.5 million children (no adequate space at home, no private space to do homework, or even an abusive home environment for children). Many families will not be prepared to provide the necessary support for schooling at home and parents may also not be able to afford not working to watch young children at home doing home-schooling (COCOPEA, 2020; McKinsey, 2020).

Time period 1 – The incoming school year (immediate term) when all stakeholders (students, teachers, parents, education bureaucracy, local governments) have to go through a period of rapid change and adjustment where the learning curve will be steep.

Time period 2 – Short term (2021, 2022) when new schooling practices will have to be developed and honed as schools change to master the new normal.

Time period 3 – Medium term (2022-2025) when the school system will undergo structural reforms to address long-term realities. Among these realities: Smaller class sizes when face-to-face classroom interaction returns on a daily basis; smaller-sized schools; many more schools; more teachers hired; differently-designed school facilities; and so on.

Education services and learning are going to have to change when face-to-face classroom learning returns.

This will have huge implications on how schools will be organized and run.  There will be cost implications especially on private schools, many of which are now struggling to survive financially.  

Private schools will see a loss in revenue and cash flow from (a) delayed tuition, (b) fewer pass-through fees paying for extra services, (c) continuing fixed costs, and (d) fewer students either transferring to lesser-cost schools or to free public schooling, or withdrawing from school in the immediate term). (READ: More than 6M elementary, high school students fail to enroll during pandemic)

Low early enrolments are worrying private schools. Two months before the postponed opening of schools in mid-to-late August 2020, private schools are already anticipating a drop in enrolment from 30% to 50%, with the bulk shifting to public schools or taking a year off (more likely for kindergarten, Grade 1-2 students (COCOPEA, 2020; DepED estimates, May 2020). 

Note:  It is especially crucial not to delay learning (schooling) for very young children as this is the time when literacy and numeracy is being developed.  Delays in learning will have a negative compounding effect in the latter years.)  

How government addresses this will be an important public policy decision.  One school of thought is to accept a shrinking private school sector and prepare to absorb the numbers in an already overcrowded public school market. The alternative is for government to expand the education service contracting scheme and buy up more seats in private schools to shift students from lower-income households who would go to public schools to where seats are available in nearby private schools. (The latter, based on the Philippine secondary school experience, has been more cost-effective and efficient as a policy instrument [author’s note].)

The disruption in education, however, does provide us with an opportunity to rethink, restructure and reorganize our schools, classrooms, learning spaces, and support facilities. Thinking longer-term, we can redesign the system to take in new structural elements to address new realities this COVID-19 is introducing to our way of life (i.e. social distancing, health considerations, new social norms and behaviors). There will be huge cost implications but the returns on investment measured in terms of learning gains might be worth it.

What should we begin thinking about?

How large should class sizes be to accommodate the new physical distancing of children in classes?

How large should schools be (or how small should schools be) to addresses optimum mass gatherings of children?

Smaller class sizes will be the norm (25 students per class). Smaller sizes will translate to more contact time between students and teachers. And in countries where this has been realized, student learning has been greatly enhanced and school systems have performed better, as evidenced by such indicators as school completion (graduation) rates, transition rates to the next higher level of schooling, and diagnostic test scores in international assessment tests.

Many public schools in the country today, especially in urban areas, are anywhere from 45 to 55+ students per class on average.  This will mean cutting class sizes by half.  School sizes should also be cut in enrolment size to no more than 1,000 students per elementary school (maximum) to 2,000 for junior and senior high schools.

In the short-term, using distance education (or blended learning), this is possible. But when schools return to face-to-face learning, this will translate to either massive shortages in schools, classrooms, and teachers, or radical class shifting with students getting half-time when meeting up with teachers in classrooms (not a desirable arrangement from past experience). (READ: Printed materials, online classes 'most preferred' for distance learning – DepEd)

Addressing these shortages will be a massive undertaking over a number of years and costing tens of billions of pesos in annual budget.  (See below.)

In addition, what kinds of health and safety facilities should be built into every school? What kinds of health and safety equipment should become standard school equipment? (And, what clothing should teachers and students be wearing to school every day (i.e. face masks, face shields, etc.)?

What practices will become the norm?

Offhand, social distancing will have to be the new social norm.

Hand washing will also have to be a new social norm in schools. But many schools have inadequate washroom and hand-washing facilities. What about tooth brushing stations? (Fact: 3,682 public elementary and secondary schools have no regular source of clean and safe water [7.76% of all public schools].  Luistro/DepED, March 2016).

What are the implications on school budgets and costs?

At this early stage, it would be wise to already start thinking of establishing/creating more schools (not just building school buildings), hiring more principals, and training more teachers. Schools should be smaller in enrolment size in order to promote quality. From experience, smaller size schools (just like smaller classes) have always shown superior results in terms of learning and achievement.

By the numbers in 5 years:  the public education system may have to expand from 46,737 schools (38,657 elementary schools and 8,082 secondary schools) to around 57,000 schools (10,000 new schools in new campuses all over the country or 2,000 new schools a year built with LGUs providing land).

From 800,000 public school teachers to 1.0 million teachers (40,000 new teachers a year) with a massive teacher training program using higher education institutions [Teacher Education Institutes or TEIs] as training centers).

Impact on the economy

Education spending (and spending on health and social welfare) will be a “social sector Build-Build-Build program.” This will benefit more people and improve social services and benefits for all.

The physical infrastructure building program can boost the local economy at a time when we need to pump prime the economy. And hiring more teachers (health workers and social workers) will help employment generation.

This should be a well-planned 5-year program so that it is done with quality. It is not too early for DepED and national planners to start thinking about how to restructure schools and the education system. – Rappler.com

Juan Miguel Luz is the former head of the Zuellig School of Development Management at the Asian Institute of Management, a former Undersecretary of Education, and a Research Fellow at the FEU Policy Center.