‘Same old problems’ to welcome 27.2 million learners to school this year

By Merlina Hernando-Malipot

As the school year (SY) 2019-2020 officially opens in all public schools June 3, the “same old problems” are expected to greet at least 23 million learners who will be trooping back to their respective schools nationwide.

Department of Education (MANILA BULLETIN)
Department of Education (MANILA BULLETIN)

Department of Education (DepEd) Secretary Leonor Briones is scheduled to visit the Signal Village National High School in Taguig City to personally monitor the opening of classes. She is also expected to visit the Comembo Elementary School in Makati City as part of the school opening activities.

Updated data on projected enrollment for SY 2019-2020 from the Office of the Undersecretary for Planning Service and Field Operations Jesus Mateo showed that 27, 216, 398 learners are expected to go to both private and public schools across all basic education levels: 22, 839, 989 in public; 4, 217, 726 in private and 158, 683 in State Universities and Colleges (SUCs) and Local Universities and Colleges (LUCs).

In public schools alone, there are 22, 839, 989 learners comprised of 2, 098, 627 Kinder; 12, 046, 842 elementary (Grades 1-6); 7,033, 527 Junior High School (JHS or Grades 7-10); and 1, 660, 993 Senior High School (SHS or Grades 11-12). The enrollment in public schools is 83.9 percent of the entire projected enrollment for this SY.

In private schools, which will open in the coming weeks, the expected enrollment is 4, 217,726 with 231,143 enrollees in Kinder; 1, 213, 776 in Elementary; 1, 431, 117 in JHS and 1,341,690 in SHS. In SUCs/LUCs, expected enrollees are: 329 in Kinder; 10,980 in elementary; 62,411 in JHS and 84,963 in SHS.

‘Same’ old problems

For Wilhelmina Vibar, a Science teacher at the Acacia Elementary School in Malabon City, this year’s school opening will still be just like those in previous years – marred by the shortage in facilities and resources due to the increasing student population.

In a phone interview with the Manila Bulletin, Vibar shared that her school had around 2,500 pupils from Kinder to Grade 6 for this SY. While the construction of a new school building is on-going, she noted that the facilities – particularly the classrooms – will not be enough.

For the past four years, Vibar said that hundreds of Grades 1 to 4 pupils have been using makeshift classrooms as temporary learning spaces (TLS). “These makeshift classrooms are made out of plywood as walls and dividers and usually accommodate 45 to 50 pupils per class,” she said.

Vibar also noted that teachers and students have been holding classes in “deteriorating” classrooms with “leaking walls due to termite infestation.”

Teaching in the same school for the past 18 years, she could not help but express disappointment on school opening issues that remain unaddressed until now. “Every school opening, we expect pupils that come in late despite the early registration,” she said in a mix of English and Filipino. As a result, classrooms become overcrowded just to accommodate those late enrollees that public schools could not turn away.

Aside from shortages in facilities, Vibar observed that one of the most recurring challenges that teachers face was the lack of enough funds for schools. “While there is Brigada Eskwela, the donations from the stakeholders are not sustained that is why the teachers are forced to shoulder additional expenses for classroom maintenance and repair,” she said.

To make-up for those that were not addressed during the schools maintenance week, teachers often shell out their own money to buy light bulbs and paints that would cost them hundreds and even thousands of pesos. “The sad thing is that this is not reimbursable…we are forced to use our own money because the MOOE [Maintenance and Other Operating Expenses] is not just enough,” she added.

‘Lamentable’ conditions

Meanwhile, the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT) bared the “lamentable conditions” of public schools all over the country as teachers and students “continue to suffer age-old problems” due to shortages in facilities, learning resources, and teaching and non-teaching personnel.

In Juan Sumulong Elementary School in Antipolo, ACT noted that one classroom is divided into four which translates to around 200 students sharing one classroom due to due to lack of facility. In Bagong Silangan in Quezon City, the group reported that around 80 to 100 students are “cramped in one classroom” which is divided into two. “The unfinished construction within the school also poses a hazard to teachers and students,” ACT added.

Based on the monitoring of ACT, a total of 15 regions have reported of the “same old problems plaguing their schools.” ACT cited that these regions have reported the lack of sufficient classrooms – with most schools still operating on shifting schedules and 50 to 70 class size.

For instance, some students and teachers in public schools in Regions 1 and 6 are “cramped in makeshift classrooms” made out of galvanized iron sheets while those in Region 5, “they hold classes in nipa huts.” Schools that were struck by typhoon “Yolanda” in Region 8 have also “been holding all their classes in plywood classrooms” since 2014.

ACT also cited the cases in Regions 7 and 11 “where classes are held in comfort rooms-turned-classroom, in covered courts, by the stairs, and under the trees right outside the school building.” In Region 13, the group noted that “every year level has a one-day holiday every week due to insufficient spaces to hold classes.”

Meanwhile, the group noted that actual classrooms in Regions 3 and 9 are still cramped and “suffer from poor ventilation” thus, teachers and parents are often forced to “provide electric fans for rooms.” To address lack of school chairs, ACT said that some parents also provide their “children their own seats as the available ones at school are limited.”

Additionally, ACT also documented cases in Region 1, 4-A, and 12 where “teachers are not provided faculty rooms” thus, some set up their “quarters inside a dysfunctional comfort room, by the school clinic, or in some cases under the stairs.” Those with advisory classes, on the other hand, are told “to set up a table –which will not be provided by DepEd, inside their classrooms – making it hard for them to do other school work while classes are ongoing.”

Aside from lack of classrooms and other facilities, ACT also received reports of lacking instructional materials and other resources such as books from Elementary to SHS, instructional materials for SHS students, as well as Information and Technology (IT) equipment.

ACT cited that a school in Region 8, for instance, only has three functioning computers out of the 20 units – which all Grade 4 students and above are supposed to share. In Region 4-B, one school has only 10 computers that are shared by at least 240 students.

“This is the appalling reality at the school level,” said ACT Secretary General Raymond Basilio. “Their environment is not at all conducive to learning and to productivity and this is the face of yearly budget cuts suffered by teachers and students,” he added.

Children are ‘hungry’

Aside from apparent shortage in facilities and other basic education resoruces, Victorino Mapa High School Principal John Butch Locara noted that among the challenges that public schools face during school opening is how to feed “hungry” children.

The school Locara has been overseeing as a principal for two years is considered as one of the “oldest high schools” in Manila. “Our school buildings are dilapidated – the classrooms are really old,” he said. “Even if there are funds for rehabilitation of classrooms, the money for school repairs come in trickles. We repair some facilities now and by the time the funds arrive for completion, these are damaged again,” he lamented.

This is why Locara could not help but be thankful to the private sector that helps the public schools. This year, Telus International Philippines (TIP) has chosen the school to be its beneficiary for its “Days of Giving” Program. Despite the criticisms hurled at the “Brigada Eskwela,” he could not imagine not holding it.

“It is really such as blessing for us, imagine, where will we get millions-worth of facilities and repair without them?” Locara asked. On the last day of this year’s Brigada, the company gathered around 2,800 of its employees to serve at least 6 hours of voluntary work – with many of them coming straight from their shifts at work.

Aside from facilities, Locara noted that the government should shift its focus on children’s health. “One of our major problems is dealing with hungry children,” he said. “Even if we have newly-repaired classrooms, how do we expect our students to pay attention to during classes when their stomachs are grumbling?” he added.

While enrolment in some public schools in Metro Manila increases, he noted that V. Mapa is expecting “lesser” number of pupils this year. Recognizing the role of teachers in the success of school opening, he noted the need for efforts to increase their morale because “our teachers are really tired” from various requirements that they need to fulfill as well as the conditions that they have to face during school opening.

For Teachers’ Dignity Coalition (TDC) Secretary General Emmalyn Policarpio said that public schools might still be reeling from the shortages of facilities and other basic education resources.

A public school teacher from Gen. T. De Leon Elementary School in Valenzuela City since 1998, Policarpio said that facing and addressing the challenges every school opening are always shouldered by teachers. “Sanay naman na kami sa mga pagsalo ng mga kakulangan ng pamahalaan pagdating sa suporta sa edukasyon, sana lang hayaan kaming makapagturo dahil iyon ang aming gawain,” she said. “Kundi maiwasan ang pagiging teknikal para makakuha ng mga datus, mag-hire ng non-teaching personel para gumwa ng mga clerical at iba pang gawaing labas sa pagtuturo,” she added.

‘Shortages’ no more

This year, DepEd remains firm that gaps in basic education resources should not be called “shortages” but “requirements.”

This, DepEd Undersecretary Annalyn Sevilla said, is because “there is budget for it.” However, these are “affected and delayed” by procurement processes – among others. DepEd has yet release consolidated and validated data on basic education resources.

When it comes to school buildings and classrooms, Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) Assistant Secretary Antonio Molano Jr., during the 2019 Oplan balik Eskwela (OBE) launch, said that assessing the actual state of classrooms and schools is a bit complicated since “schools are different from one another” and that “standards and other issues” need to addressed first.

Current available data from DepEd showed that the construction of 66,050 classrooms is still ongoing. Ideally, Sevilla said these should be completed before the school year opens. However, due to some issues, these are expected to be completed within the year – which means that thousands of classrooms that the students should be using remain uncompleted.

Sevilla noted that among the challenges when it comes to addressing gaps in classrooms is the lack of buildable space – particularly in highly-urbanized areas. DepEd said that there is a big disparity between some schools in Metro Manila and in provinces because many schools in highly-urbanized areas have higher enrollees which lead to overpopulation and congestion in classrooms.

“As much as we want to give these schools the classrooms they need, the biggest issues are the buildable spaces,” Sevilla said. She added that even if DepEd has funds, if there are no buildable spaces, no additional school buildings will be constructed. Thus, DepEd has been looking into going “vertical” – or more storeys of school buildings.

Not a ‘fairy tale’

Unlike in other neighboring countries where there are lesser number of students, the Philippines welcome millions of learners every school opening. The sheer volume of learners, Briones said, is a challenge in itself. “Nakikita natin na maski ganito ang sitwasyon natin, kahit gaano kalaki yung demand, we respond,” she said during the 2019 OBE launch.

In the presscon of the 2019 OBE, an initiative of DepEd to ensure smooth opening of classes, Briones talked about Aladdin and his genie – contextualizing it to “realities” of the public school system.

Unlike Aladdin who has a magical lamp, Briones said that the government is no genie – it cannot “grant” wishes for the education sector in an instant. “The government is not like a magic lamp, it’s not like a genie,” she said – noting that not “everything we wish for” would just pop out overnight.

Briones urged everyone to take a closer look at the country’s education system and how the government is addressing its needs. Fairy tales, she said, are “fantasies which technology makes real and true.” In the context of the education system, realities like gaps in resources are true, thus, the way “we look and approach education should be unique, different and very special.”

Of course, DepEd does not deny that there are still some challenges and “requirements” that need to addressed. While the education system is far from being “perfect” – DepEd said that “we can do with what we have right now” – noting that the government does not stop in addressing gaps in the public education system.