Published September 16, 2020, 5:00 PM

by AA Patawaran

This pandemic is like war, but it’s not like war and, for schools, it can be worse

Illustration by Ariana Maralit

Bad weather, bed weather—and #WalangPasok (No Classes) is trending on Twitter. But it’s prompted not so much by a storm brewing but by bad signal, bad vibes, bad times. On Twitter, the strongly-worded, cussword-carrying messages notwithstanding, it sounds like wishful thinking, a throwback to those days everything was normal and #WalangPasok was a welcome disruption.


Now it’s a variation of #AcademicFreeze, a hashtag movement calling for the cancelation of school year 2020-2021 on the premise that, with money, broadband, and gadget problems, there is no way the Department of Education (DepEd) or even the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) can guarantee that no one will be left behind.

We’ve been down this road before, many times in the previous century, not only as the result of a pandemic but also of wars. What does history have to tell us about the extended disruption of learning in the face of such cataclysmic events?

A teacher based in Cagayan de Oro conducting online class as a way to adapt to the new normal in education. Photo from Teach for the Philippines

A video has been circulating that prompts us to imagine we were born in 1900. By the time we were 14, World War I would have begun. It would end four years later with 22 million dead. We would be 18, jumping out of the war into yet another disaster, the Spanish Flu, from which, in two years as we turned 20, the world, with 50 million dead, would emerge.

Nine years later, all the upheavals of our time still fresh in our memory, the New York Stock Market would crash, plunging the world economy into the Great Depression. That would be another decade of hardship. At 33, we would have seen the rise of Adolf Hitler and, at 39, we would have heard the rumblings of World War II that would eventually kill 60 million of us.

Yet in all those years of challenge after challenge, we were not content with just surviving.

Education these days in the far flung areas in the country. Photo by Bro Martin Francisco, SSMESI chairperson

The 1900s were a century of continuous learning, inventions, and discoveries—the kiss-proof lipstick and hairdryers by the end of the 1920s, the ballpoint pen, the folding wheelchair, and helicopters in the 1930s, the kidney dialysis machine, the bikini (1944, like the bombs!), and general purpose computers in the 1940s, and the widescreen cinema, the polio vaccine, and the microchip in the 1950s.

In the 1960s came the miniskirt, the computer mouse, and the Internet. Genetic engineering, cellular phones, and the personal computer followed in the 1970s. And then the World Wide Web came to us at the close of the ‘80s, one decade before the new millennium, this new age. 

But did the schools close in those long periods of turbulence? Yes and no. 


During the Great War (World War I), or even in the years leading up to it, most schools, even the US or Great Britain, which was barely touched by the war, patriotic and pro-war lessons were made focal in the curriculum, apart from reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic.

Because many countries like the US and Canada sent troops, the education system was redesigned to get massive support for the war.

In Auckland, according to the website New Zealand History, “schools and children were quickly called into action. Children raised funds for the war effort, knitted socks and scarves, and wrote letters to the ‘boys’ at the front.”

School children doing a gas drill in Kingston, Greater London, in World War II. Photo from BBC

In the report “Going to School During World Wars” by Cassidy Foxcroft for the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education, the periodical The Children’s Story of War became a tool with which schoolchildren were provided with detailed narratives of the war in 1915. “The teachers were also advised to supplement lessons about the war with suitable newspaper clippings and to arrange class visits to training grounds and aircraft exhibitions,” added the report.

Italy was among the four main theaters of operation in World War I, but the Italian front covered only a small portion of its northern region and its western border with Austria-Hungary. Still, war changed the school curriculum drastically with much about weapons, fighter planes, and poison gas included in the lessons. As stated in the interregional project Itinerari della Grande Guerra—Un viaggio nella storia (Itineraries of the Grand War—a journey through history), teachers of physical education in Italy “were advised to replace the hours allocated to gymnastics and sport with visits to military hospitals, to factories that had been adapted for military production, and to prisoner-of-war camps.

It would have been different on any of the other warfronts, but in Belgium, where much of the fighting took place on the western front, education continued. And while the war was integrated into classroom teaching in the previously-mentioned countries, it was the opposite in Brussels. Here’s a scenario shared in the article “Brussels Schoolchildren during the First World War” by Jean Houssiau and Christian Vreugde for Cairn.Info: “Somehow, teachers strove to continue their work of education and instruction, doing their best to keep the war outside the gates. This is mentioned in the minutes of monthly education conferences for primary education—‘(The headmaster) encourages us… to forget the dark days we are living through. He also advises to be very careful what we say and not to talk about the war in school.’”

A grade school classroom scene in the Philippines from the ’60s. Photo by Pocoy Calvento

World War II was the most destructive war in history and since its theater of conflict stretched across Europe and also the Pacific, it was the most disruptive to education. Many school buildings were destroyed or, if they were left standing, they were commandeered or converted into makeshift hospitals.

In the Netherlands, according to a paper written by Annette Richardson, “Educational institutions, especially large ecclesiastical boarding schools in the heavily Roman Catholic south, were quickly evacuated to house troops. The occupier’s bureaucracy also inhabited schools. Emergency children’s hospitals were housed in school buildings and many schools later served as Red Cross sites. Some schools became transportation depots whether for labor, Jews, or students and teachers. In the later phase of the occupation schools became food distribution centers. One school became a bordello for the Nazi officers.”


But the devastation was not enough to put education to a complete halt.

In Poland, among the hardest hit by Nazi terror, teachers, who eluded the concentration camps, conducted underground courses in secret apartments at the risk of deportation and death, all in the name of preserving Polish culture.

The Dutch, to continue Richardson’s account, would hold classes “in any available space large enough to accommodate the large cluster of students. Schools were set up in various places: stables, garages, vestry rooms, lofts and cellars, farmers’ sheds, living rooms, bakeries, workplace lunchrooms.”

Even on the Pacific front, in Manila, the atrocities of World War II did not stop some teachers from teaching and some students from learning.

Ateneo de Manila, which had moved to Padre Faura after a fire destroyed its Intramuros campus, was completely devastated, and all that was left was the statue of Saint Joseph and the Child Jesus.

A Polish kid survives the bombing of Warsaw, photo by Julien Bryan

Soon after the Japanese invasion, the University of Santo Tomas in Sampaloc became the biggest internment camp in the Philippines housing up to 4,000 Americans, British, and Filipino detainees, many of whom were later transferred to the the Los Baños campus of the University of the Philippines (UP).

But where they could, the teachers taught and the students learned.

At UP-Diliman, most of the colleges shut down, but not the Colleges of Medicine, Pharmacy, and Engineering.

The Japanese turned San Beda College in Mendiola into a garrison and supply depot, but quietly the Bedans held classes, albeit limited, in the Abbey of Our Lady of Montserrat.

A photo from the La Torre yearbook showing students at the San Jose Normal School wearing masks during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. Photo from SJSU Special Collections and Archives.

Although the Japanese Imperial Army also requisitioned the De La Salle College campus on Taft Avenue, converting it into their South Manila defense quarters, the school year 1943-44 went on, albeit with a severely reduced curriculum and with some of the essential structures irreparably destroyed by bombs, such as the college gymnasium, part of the library, and much of the laboratory equipment. 

In between these World Wars was the pandemic of 1918, which pretty much mirrors what we are undergoing today.

Like now, school closure was a standard mitigation response, but not for two of the biggest cities in the US—New York and Chicago—and also New Haven, Connecticut. These three cities went against the grain of class suspensions that, in some locations, lasted as long as 15 weeks. 

For New York authorities, strongly led by the health commissioner, keeping the kids in school was the safer alternative. Of almost a million children in the public school system in 1918, 75 percent lived in crowded, often ill-kept tenements, under conditions perfect for the spread of any disease.

In contrast, the schools were a clean, well-ventilated environment, where the kids would be supervised by teachers, nurses, and physicians rather than left alone in the streets or congregating elsewhere. It helped that in 1902, the school nurse or even a district doctor had become as much a fixture of every American campus as a blackboard (although that is no longer true for many public schools now in the US and elsewhere in the world). Chicago and New Haven were similarly guided to put to effect decades of government-mandated training in promoting health and hygiene, as well as safety, among schoolchildren.


The lesson we can learn from these examples, if we are still clueless about how exactly we can keep the disruption on our children’s education to a minimum, is that it does take a village to raise them—and we would need our public health officials, our education heads, and our political leaders closely coordinating, consulting, and strategizing with experts in relevant fields. In Los Angeles, too, at the height of the 1918 pandemic, according to American professor Mary Battenfield‘s article for The Conversation, “the mayor, health commissioner, police chief, and school superintendent collaborated to monitor infection rates, provide teachers additional training, and create and deliver homework for 90,000 schoolchildren.”

Because, yes, with #WalangPasok or #AcademicFreeze, we can cancel the problem of 2020-2021 and have enough time to worry about the next school year, but this pandemic is like war, but it isn’t like war. War makes you grow up, teaches you the skills you need to survive against hunger or traitors or a gun pointed at you or your house burning or bombs falling from the sky. War wounds you, scars you, makes you stronger, if it doesn’t kill you. War lets you discover whom to trust, where you can hide, when you should fight, what you truly, truly need to stay alive, and how fast you can run.

It’s possible the kids won’t learn much from Covid-19, except how not to get bored with TikTok, how to order sushi bake on FoodPanda, and how to become an all-powerful battlemage in Spellbreak.