MANILA — As the Philippines eases quarantine restrictions and life slowly returns to a level of pre-COVID normalcy, economic and social scars from one of the world’s longest and strictest lockdowns are expected to linger years after the last face shield is thrown into the bin.
While the country’s economic managers expect the Philippines to return to its 2019 level of productivity as early as next year, the lockdowns are seen weighing down students for years to come, even after they’ve already joined the workforce.
This is seen as partly due to the Philippines being one of the last countries in the world to return to face-to-face classes, relying on distance learning for nearly 2 years.
Emelina Cano finds it difficult to keep her youngest children, twins who are both Grade 2 public school students, focused on studying their learning modules. She sometimes promises to reward them with ice cream just so they would accomplish their class requirements.
“Ang bata kasi, kapag nanay ang nagtuturo, hindi masyado sumusunod. Hindi katulad sa teacher, siyempre mahihiya siya sa teacher, susunod siya,” said Cano, a 39-year-old mother of four from San Jose del Monte, Bulacan.
(When the one teaching a child is their mother, they don’t usually follow orders. Unlike when it’s a teacher, of course, they’ll feel ashamed to disobey the teacher.)
“Ang daming dahilan. Inaantok, nagugutom [at] kahit kauumpisa pa lang, pagod na,” she said.
(There’s lots of excuses. They feel sleepy, hungry and exhausted even when we just started.)
Of her three children who are still in school, Cano only helps her twins with their studies. She’s unable to assist her second child, a Grade 12 student, since she did not reach that grade level.
“‘Pag dating sa Grade 12 ko, hindi ko na siya maturuan kasi hindi ko na naabot iyon. Hindi ako naka-graduate ng high school. Kapag may kailangan siyang itanong, sa ate na lang niya,” said Cano, referring to her eldest who already finished college.
(When it comes to my Grade 12 student, I can’t teach them because I didn’t get to that grade level. I never graduated high school. When my Grade 12 student has a question, they usually ask their sister.)
Teaching her youngest children also comes as a challenge for Cano since she’s required to revisit school lessons that she had already forgotten, a testament of her eagerness to help them cope with the distance learning setup that was implemented in Philippine schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In fact, when schools closed down last year and shifted to the alternative scheme, Cano quit her job at a foundation in order to focus on helping her children with their studies.
Cano is not the only parent who gave up work for their children’s studies. There are also parents who juggle their jobs with helping their kids in distance learning.
In a report released last September, the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) said an online survey it conducted found that nearly 60 percent of Filipino families have at least one parent who skips work to teach their children, resulting in 25 percent forgone income.
The NEDA report highlights the sorry state of the country’s education system during the COVID-19 pandemic, which is seen to impact students’ future earnings as well as the Philippine economy as a whole.
In 2020, the economy lost an estimated P230 billion due to a year of school closure, prompted by job losses among private school teachers and parents who had to forego or reduce work due to their children's homeschooling, according to the NEDA report.
The economic planning body also warned the prolonged school closures during the pandemic could cost the economy P11 trillion in future wages and productivity.
LOW LEVEL OF LEARNING
Love Basillote, an expert in education and human capital development, explained that the current generation of students may face learning losses, which would lead them to having lower income in the future.
The learning losses stem from the lack of face-to-face instruction and difficulties in distance education, such as uneven access to devices for online classes.
“For example, you’re supposed to be qualified for a certain position, but then because your competencies are not really at the right level. You then get employed at a lower level and therefore, you earn less,” said Basillote, who is also the executive director of advocacy group Philippine Business for Education.
“The root of the problem, really, is the learning losses that we expect students to experience because of the pandemic and because of low levels of learning even before the pandemic,” she said.
The 12 years of expected schooling in the Philippines is equivalent to only 8 years of learning, according to the NEDA report, citing the World Bank.
“This is likely to fall as a result of the long school closure,” the planning body added, referring to schools that have not implemented in-person learning since March 2020.
In July, Education Undersecretary Diosdado San Antonio said there was no data yet to prove learning losses under distance learning, but the NEDA and United Nations Development Programme had already started conducting research on the matter.
The NEDA also pointed out that “remote education may worsen inequality as some households have limited access to reliable internet and necessary devices.”
It’s a disparity that’s evident for parents like Kristina Roces, a mother of two public school students from General Mariano Alvarez, Cavite.
In Roces’ community, parents who have easy access to the internet and social media offer help to those who struggle with connectivity.
“Ang communication ng mga teacher via [group chat], sa Facebook. Siyempre hindi rin lahat ng magulang, may data, hindi rin lahat naka-smartphone,” Roces said.
(Teachers use group chats and Facebook to communicate with parents and students. Not all parents have internet data and not everyone uses a smartphone.)
“Minsan may announcement [ang teacher], ‘yong mga malalapit na nanay, pupuntahan na lang ‘yong mga nanay na walang communication through Facebook”
(Sometimes when there’s an announcement from the teacher, mothers visit other mothers who cannot communicate through Facebook to relay the message.)
RETURN TO IN-PERSON LEARNING
Acknowledging the limitations of distance learning, the Department of Education has come up with a three-phased plan to reopen schools during the pandemic, which starts with a pilot run of limited face-to-face instruction in 120 schools.
On Nov. 15, limited face-to-face classes in select areas with low COVID-19 infection rates resumed after almost two years of school closures.
The following week, 18 private schools from areas deemed “low risk” for COVID-19 reopened to students from kindergarten to Grade 3 and senior high school (SHS).
Last Monday, Dec. 6, the select schools in Metro Manila followed suit, while limited in-person classes are also set to resume in rural areas in January.
This will be expanded with either more schools or grade levels holding in-person classes by March 2022.
Lawmakers have criticized the program’s timeline, with Senate Basic Education Committee Chairman Sherwin Gatchalian saying “we will have two years of school closures” if the expansion phase starts by March.
The plan to get students back into classrooms, even on a limited scale to complement distance learning modalities, has also been met with mixed reactions from parents.
“Gusto ko na rin sila makaranas na makaharap iyong teacher nila, talagang nakatutok sila sa pag-aaral,” said Cano, who is in favor of the move.
(I want my children to personally interact with their teacher so that they can focus on their studies.)
Roces said the parents in their community are still hesitant to send their children back to school due to the continued threat of COVID-19.
“Wala rin naman guarantee ang [Department of Health] na iko-cover nila ang expenses ng bawat batang magkaka-COVID na participant. Hindi namin iri-risk ‘yon,” she said.
(There’s also no guarantee from the Department of Health that they will cover the expenses of every child participant who will get COVID. We don’t want to risk that.)
For Basillote, the government should do away with its blanket ban on in-person classes and allow local officials to decide on the reopening of schools.
“While the government, at the national level, can set the standards for safe face-to-face, I think that local communities are in a better position to really decide for themselves,” she said.
Basillote also called for an increase or realignment of education budgets to prioritize the retrofitting of school facilities for in-person classes amid the pandemic and vaccine mandates for school personnel.