At a Senate hearing last year, the Department of Education (DepEd) reported that enrollment from kindergarten to senior high school for school year 2020-2021 was estimated at 23 million or 83 percent of the 27.7 million enrolled previously. When Senator Nancy Binay asked DepEd Undersecretary Nepomuceno Malaluan if this meant there would be millions more out-of-school youth, the answer was, “Yes, Madam Senator.”
When we realize that millions of out-of-school youth are from homes in which family breadwinners have also lost their jobs, the serious repercussions of the convergence of a national health emergency, a severe economic recession and a crisis in education begin to emerge.
Management Association of the Philippines (MAP) President Aurelio Montinola III framed the parameters of this crisis:
“We are facing a learning crisis that threatens the growth trajectory of the nation. Pre-pandemic, our students were already falling behind in reading, math, science, and 21st-century skills. Three outside international assessors ranked us last (PISA 2018, 78 economies, and TIMMSS 2019, 64 economies) or bottom half (SEA-PLM 2019, six participating ASEAN countries). What more in pandemic 2020, when schools were downgraded to remote learning, unequal WIFI and 2.7 million unenrolled students?”
DepEd has endeavored to ensure learning continuity through a blended approach: mostly distance learning through the use of pre-assigned modules distributed to students’ homes combined with online or virtual classes in places with internet connectivity. Private companies and civic organizations have been contributing cellphones, printers, paper, tablets and other devices to help teachers and students cope with the difficulties of not meeting in person but understandably, serious gaps in delivery of learning persist.
“COVID-19 is affecting all school systems in the world, but here it is even worse,” observed Isy Faingold, UNICEF’s education chief in the Philippines. He pointed out too that “classroom closures also leave children at greater risk of sexual violence, teenage pregnancy and recruitment by armed groups.”
President Duterte has remained steadfast in implementing a strict lockdown policy on schools: “For me, vaccine first. If the vaccine is already there, then it’s okay.” DepEd’s initial moves to explore limited school reopening last January were shelved when another surge was triggered by lapses in enforcing health and safety protocols. Moreover, new and more highly infectious variants of the novel coronavirus emerged and detected to have been transmitted within the country, too.
Dr. Maria Lourdes Carandang, a noted clinical and child psychologist has pointed out: “Not being able to see and relate physically face to face with their classmates and friends has had a tremendous impact on the emotional development of children.” Children from more affluent families are better off, as they have opportunities for in-person homeschooling and tutoring. Hence, the school lockdown has further widened the dimensions of social inequality.
In areas where Modified General Community Quarantine (MGCQ) has been in force for sometime now on account of relatively low or moderate COVID-19 incidence, the government would do well to start exploring pathways toward safe and healthy school reopening.