Beyond tax relief, safe school reopening is priority

Published August 27, 2021, 12:12 AM

by Manila Bulletin

Shortly after the delayed reopening of classes last year, Education Secretary Leonor Briones reported to the Senate that only 2.1 million or less than half of an estimated 4.3 million learners enrolled in private schools.  Moreover, 865 out of 14,435 private schools nationwide suspended operations.  She surmised that more than half of them transferred to public schools as the global coronavirus pandemic caused serious economic dislocation.

Last week, the House of Representatives passed House Bill 9913 that enables private schools to avail themselves of the ten percent preferential rate on taxable income and also grants proprietary schools the privilege of availing themselves of the one percent special tax rate until 2020.

Even if favorable Senate action could eventually ensure that the tax relief measures sought by private school owners would be realized, the far-reaching impact of the COVID-driven economic slowdown continues to be felt in the academe.

The Bayanihan 2 law passed last year provided some P600 million in assistance to teachers and students.  Teachers and school employees who were displaced or who took a pay cut were given financial aid ranging from P5,000 to P8,000. The Commission on Higher Education (CHED) gave grants-in-aid of P5,000 to some 54,000 college students.

Looking ahead at prospects for the new school-year, Secretary Briones expressed hopes that this year’s enrollment would “at least match” last year’s figures as the country continues to struggle against the continuing transmission of the COVID disease despite ramped-up vaccination efforts. This means that about 2 million learners would remain out of school for the second straight year.

The private schools’ plight is a microcosm of the harsh impact of the national health emergency on the educational system.  As public schools reopen next month, the challenges of implementing blended learning will again come to the fore.

Has the government provided enough resources to overcome the serious difficulties encountered last school year by students, teachers and administrators?  Are there adequate modules or hard-copy learning materials or will many schools depend anew on support from civil society and private volunteer organizations?  Has Internet connectivity been improved sufficiently to minimize interruptions in the conduct of virtual classes? Have parents been oriented and trained adequately to assist in home-schooling their young children? Do teachers have basic gadgets and teaching aids to enable them to teach adequately?

Beyond improving blended learning, it is imperative to prioritize the safe reopening of schools as vaccination efforts enable the attainment of enhanced community protection or herd immunity.  In a study published last April, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) noted that on account of shuttered schools, younger students are deprived of vital cognitive, social, physical and emotional skills that could jeopardize future job prospects.

Far more than the financial viability of private schools has been severely affected by the coronavirus contagion. It has impaired the mental development of our youth.  The country’s leaders must pay serious attention to developing a viable action plan for enabling schools to reopen and for students to resume learning in a better normal scenario.