With schools closed, COVID-19 deepens a Philippine education crisis

A government worker assists people queueing to get Moderna COVID-19 vaccine in school turned vaccination site that operates 24/7, in Manila, Philippines, August 9, 2021. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez
As jubilant students across the globe trade in online learning for classrooms, millions of children in the Philippines are staying home for the second year in a row because of the pandemic, fanning concerns about a worsening education crisis in a country where access to the internet is uneven.

President Rodrigo Duterte has justified keeping elementary schools and high schools closed by arguing that students and their families need to be protected from the coronavirus. The Philippines has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Asia, with just 16 percent of its population fully inoculated, and delta variant infections have surged in recent months.

That makes the Philippines, with its roughly 27 million students, one of only a handful of countries that has kept schools fully closed throughout the pandemic, joining Venezuela, according to UNICEF. Other countries that kept schools closed, like Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, have moved to reopen them.

“I cannot gamble on the health of the children,” Duterte said in June, rejecting recommendations by the health department to reopen schools.

The move — which has kept nearly 2,000 schools closed — has spawned a backlash among parents and students in a sprawling nation with endemic poverty. Many people, particularly in remote and rural areas, do not have access to a computer or the internet at home for online learning.

Iljon Roxas, a high school student stuck at home in Bacoor City, south of Manila, said the monotony of staring at a computer screen over the past year made it difficult to concentrate, and he yearned to return to a real classroom. The fun and joy of learning, he added, had evaporated.

“I miss a lot of things, like bonding with classmates during free time,” said Iljon, 16. “I also miss my teachers, believe it or not. Since last year we have been stuck in front of our screens — you listen, you tune out.”

The crisis in the Philippines comes as countries across the world, including the United States, have been grappling with one of the worst disruptions of public schooling in modern history. Governments have struggled to balance the imperative of health and safety with the public duty to educate children.

Some countries, like Britain, have taken an aggressive approach to keeping schools open, including from late spring into early summer, when the delta variant surged. While many elementary school students and their teachers did not wear masks, the British government focused instead on other safety measures, such as rapid testing and widespread quarantining.

Where schools have been closed for a long time, such as the Philippines, education experts have expressed concerns that the pandemic has created a “lost generation” of students, buffeted by the limits of remote learning and by overstretched parents struggling to serve as surrogate physics and literature teachers.

Maritess Talic, 46, a mother of two, said she feared her children had barely learned anything during the past year. Talic, who works part time as a maid, said she and her husband, a construction worker, had scraped together about 5,000 pesos, or about $100, to buy a secondhand computer tablet to share with their children, ages 7 and 9.

But the family — which lives in Imus, a suburb south of Manila — does not have consistent internet access at home. They rely on prepaid internet cards that are constantly running out, sometimes in the middle of her children’s online classes, Talic said. She has also struggled to teach her children science and math with her limited schooling.

“It is very hard,” she said, adding that the children struggled to share one device. “We can’t even find enough money to pay our electricity bill sometimes, and now we have to also look for extra money to pay for internet cards.”

She said she understood the need to prioritise health before keeping schools opened, but she feared for her children’s future. “The thing is, I don’t think they are learning at all,” she added. “The internet connection is just too slow sometimes.”

Even before the pandemic, the Philippines was facing an education crisis, with overcrowded classrooms, shoddy public school infrastructure and desperately low wages for teachers creating a teacher shortage.

A 2020 World Bank report said the country also suffered from a digital divide. In 2018, it said, about 57% of the Philippines’ roughly 23 million households did not have internet access. However, the government has since been working to narrow that gap. Manila City Mayor Francisco Domagoso, said in an interview that last year, City Hall had handed out 130,000 tablets for school children and some 11,000 laptops for teachers.

UNICEF said in an August study that the school closures were especially damaging for vulnerable children, already facing the challenges of poverty and inequality. It called for the phased reopening of schools in the country, starting in low-risk areas and with stringent safety protocols in place.

The school closures have had negative consequences for students, said Oyunsaikhan Dendevnorov, UNICEF’s representative in the Philippines. Students have fallen behind and reported mental distress. He also cited a heightened risk of drop outs, child labor and child marriage.

As remote classes resumed this week, Leonor Briones, the education secretary, sought to portray the electronic reopening as a success. She said that about 24 million children, from elementary school to high school, were enrolled in school. But she acknowledged that the enrollment figure included about 2 million fewer students than last year.

Regina Tolentino, deputy secretary-general of the College Editors Guild of the Philippines, which represents college newspaper editors, said the government’s attempt to put a positive spin on the second year of shuttered schools was “delusional.”

With remote learning the only option, she said, poor students were being forced to spend money on computers and internet cards rather than on basic necessities like food. “The government must hear students out and uphold their basic rights to education even during the pandemic,” she said.

But leading doctors and health experts said that, while opening schools was an important aim, health and safety needed to be prioritized.

They pointed out that just more than 14 million people in the Philippines were fully vaccinated, well below the government’s initial target of 70 million by the end of the year. Some hospitals were filled to capacity, and scenes of patients receiving oxygen in parking lots had become commonplace.

Dr Anthony Leachon, a prominent public health expert who was a member of the government’s COVID-19 advisory panel, called for the vaccination of 12- to 17-year-olds to be fast-tracked to help clear the way for schools to be reopened.

“It’s dangerous,” he said, “to reopen schools with the delta variant strains at the moment.”

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