[OPINION] To open or not to open schools: That is the question

The Philippines and other Asian governments want to reopen schools again sooner than later. But the Philippine government’s decision to postpone the opening of public schools from August 24 to October 5 indicates the problems countries are encountering in addressing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Asia’s poor have traditionally valued education, so much that they have been willing to sell prized possessions like family heirlooms and the father’s farming right hand — the carabao — just to send their children to school.
 
The huge question now is how to reopen.
 
The pandemic is still raging, but education is lagging. Parents and teachers who prefer the traditional system are worried that we may never be able to go back to the old system — i.e., face-to-face learning, reinforced with smiles and back-patting and aided by digital technology whenever available. We never knew we had the ideal system — until we lost it via Wuhan, perhaps forever.  

New schism following COVID-19

UNESCO says it in bureaucratese, which somehow sounds more impressive: “Education itself will be defined by a new schism — the policies and practices before COVID-19, and those that will come to define the next generation of learning.” (1) Amen.
 
Before COVID-19 we had face-to-face schooling. Since that will no longer be feasible now on a large scale given the gigantic national populations we are dealing with, we have to search for a combination of approaches.
 
We now have to invent a system for the next generation of learning. The schools in Asia are experimenting with various modes of delivery for their educational content. Predictably, most have gone online, like the universities in Indonesia’s most populated island of Java.
 
Study from home is the most obvious option. But while the universities may be able to do this, the primary and secondary levels cannot because of sheer numbers. The divide between the digital haves and have-nots stand in the way. Most of these Asian countries do not have the digital infrastructure and technology to deliver the educational messages. (3)
 
A majority of these students have limited school-provided computer labs and equipment. Many do not have access to fast and unlimited internet on their mobile devices.
 
Internet penetration in Asia ranges from super low in Central and South Asia to super high in East Asia. Low internet examples are Kyrgyzstan with 38% penetration, Tajikistan with 31%, and Pakistan with 32%. At the high end of the spectrum are South Korea with 96% internet penetration, Japan with 93%, and Taiwan with 92%. (3)
 
In the middle are the Asian giants — China with 59% internet penetration, India with 40%, and Indonesia with 62%. The mix of ASEAN countries range from Brunei with 95%, Singapore 88%, and Malaysia 81%, to Laos 42%, Cambodia 47%, and Myanmar 40%. (3)

Blended approach

A blended approach proposed by the Philippines may work. The blended approach, as the name implies, is a combination of methodologies to deliver the knowledge. The approach entails a combination (or a mix) of various approaches which evokes images of a Filipino dish — the halo-halo (or mix-mix) of various tropical fruits served as refreshments with milk and crushed ice.
 
This mix-mix includes college students learning from home in countries or areas where the Internet is adequate — digital learning through computers for college students of families who can afford the equipment in places where high speed internet is available.
 
If college students go digital in developed countries, it will reduce traffic and help primary and secondary school students. For non-college students, when they reach school they will be subjected to the usual protocols — daily temperature checks, face masks, social distancing, use of hand disinfectants, regular disinfection of classrooms and equipment, with resident school doctors and nurses, and school-prepared meals served in the school cafeteria.  
 
But even this option has its critics. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte himself prefers to wait until a vaccine is available before restarting classes to protect the children from COVID-19, and ultimately, the vulnerable adults in households. My optimistic estimate is that the vaccine may take another year to materialize. 

Fearless forecast

This leads me to my fearless forecast. Even this blended approach may take time to implement. The COVID-19 pandemic will get worse before it gets better. In the US, Brazil, Russia, and India, cases are now spiking alarmingly.
 
We cannot rush back to school. It will take two years to vaccinate people: one year to produce a vaccine and another year to perfect it and give doses to people. This is precisely why we need time for schools to resume, preferably one, two years at most. We can use this time to upgrade our internet and digital systems so that when the time comes, college students can go online and primary and secondary students can go to school.
 
We expect the digital experts to work side by side with the curriculum specialists to prepare the syllabi. Countries will be scrounging for funds to survive this pandemic but we hope they have enough credit to borrow from the World Bank or Asian Development Bank

This reminds an octogenarian like me of the time when I was in grade school at the start of World War II in 1941-1944 when the Japanese invaded and occupied the Philippines. We had no school then. When the war ended, we just compressed 3 school years into two and promoted everyone by one grade based on qualifying exams given mid-year.
                                        
To take care of the lag, promote everybody by one year two years from now.  We do need to rush back to school. But we have to make haste slowly.  – Rappler.com

Crispin C. Maslog, former journalist with Agence France-Presse, is an environmental activist and former science journalism professor, Silliman University and University of the Philippines Los Baños, Philippines. He is a founding member and now Chair of the Board, Asian Media Information and Communication Centre, Manila.
 
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.

References 

1. Education and COVID-19 (UNESCO), 17 Apr 2020.
2. Analyzing the state of education across Asia, from grade school to trade schoolDevelopment Asia: A Publication of the Asian Development Bank, April–June 2011
3. Internet World Stats