MANILA - Some 22.5 million students in public schools in the Philippines finally resumed their studies on Monday through distance learning, which is being implemented on a nationwide scale for the first time due to the pandemic, with some students, parents and teachers airing skepticism about the new learning mode.
The start of classes, originally scheduled during the first Monday of June, has been delayed twice to give schools ample time to prepare for distance learning, which is the Department of Education's response to the continuing threat of COVID-19 that has so far infected more than 322,000 in the country.
Under the new system, students will be learning mostly from their homes through printed and digital modules given by schools, and online classes on videoconferencing platforms. These will also be supplemented by lessons delivered through television and radio.
On Sunday, Education Undersecretary Diosdado San Antonio said the department was ready to address challenges that would crop up during the start of the school year.
"'Pag sinabi naming handang-handa, pinaghahandaan din ang contingencies para mabigyan ng tugon 'yong mga magiging hamon," he told ABS-CBN"s TeleRadyo.
(When we say we're well-prepared, we are also preparing contingencies to address problems we'll be facing.)
For instance, a student without gadgets will be allowed to shift to a different distance learning modality, he said.
"Hindi kailangan mag-invest sa gadget para tuloy-tuloy ang pag-aaral ng mga bata. Naihanda na rin ng mga paaralan ang self-learning modules," he said.
(There is no need to invest on gadgets for the children's continued education. Schools are ready with self-learning modules.)
Teachers without internet access may report to schools to manage their classes as long as they follow minimum health standards and do not have underlying illnesses, said San Antonio.
In an earlier press briefing, Revsee Escobedo, DepEd's Undersecretary for field operations, said the agency's officials would visit schools around the country during the first 2 weeks of classes to identify and address issues on distance learning.
"Critical sa amin 'yong first 2 weeks after the school opening dahil kailangan namin i-assess ano 'yong mga gaps, glitches," he said.
(The first 2 weeks after school opening will be critical for us because we need to assess what the gaps and glitches are.)
Lack of gadgets, poor internet
Despite having conducted hundreds of dry runs in the past months, some parents, students and teachers remain doubtful if distance learning would work.
Among the reasons they cited were lack of gadgets and unstable internet connectivity, which may affect how learners and teachers communicate with each other.
"'Yong iba[ng students], hindi nakakausap 'yong teacher kasi 'yong iba, walang gadget... Feeling ko hindi matututo masyado 'yong mga bata compared doon sa face-to-face [classes]," said Rebecca Maceda, a resident of Santa Ana, Manila who has 2 sons in school.
(Other students could not talk to their teacher because they don't have gadgets... I feel like students won't learn much compared to face-to-face classes.)
"Dito sa tabing-dagat, walang signal, paputol-putol," said Grade 9 student Mariel Lucindo, who lives in Manila's coastal Baseco Compound.
(Here in the seaside, there's no signal. It keeps getting interrupted.)
Maceda added that not all parents are capable of monitoring and guiding their children in their studies at home.
"Hindi naman lahat ng magulang available. Siyempre, 'yong iba nagtatrabaho... 'Yong iba, siyempre, hindi naman lahat nakapag-aral nang maayos," she said.
(Not all parents are available. Of course, others are working... Other parents, of course, did not receive proper education.)
The Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT), the country's largest teachers' union, said educators also lacked allowance for communication expenses.
ACT Secretary General Raymond Basilio said teachers do not feel secured in carrying out their tasks due to lack of health screening.
"Hindi nila alam kung sino nga ba ang infected ng virus. Para sa'min, mahalaga na ma-determine kung sino iyong fit to work," Basilio said in an interview.
(The teachers don't know who among them is infected with the virus. For us, it's important to determine who is fit to work.)
Echoing Basilio's sentiments, Amy Serdeña, a high school teacher from Bulacan, said educators feel anxious about getting COVID-19 since they continue to physically report to schools to produce modules and go around communities to deliver learning materials.
"Ilang beses na kami nasa school, wala man lang bang swabbing, rapid test para sa lahat ng teachers?" she said.
(We've been to the school multiple times. Aren't there swabbing or rapid test for all teachers?)
Teachers have also been complaining of burnout due to heavier workload under the "new normal."
Aside from monitoring students' learning, teachers also have to address the concerns of parents and school heads, and produce and print self-learning modules that would be used in the succeeding weeks, among other tasks.
"Sa totoo lang, umiiyak talaga 'yong mga teachers. Mukhang 'pag tuloy-tuloy nang ganito... parang sa susunod na taon, gusto ko nang mag-retire," said Serdeña, who has been teaching for over 3 decades.
(Honestly, teachers are crying. If this goes on like this... perhaps next year, I would want to retire.)
For Basilio, the DepEd did not use the period since August 24, the previous school opening date, to address their concerns.
The DepEd earlier said it would hire learning support aides to help parents facilitate their children's learning at home, and to ease the heavy workload of teachers.
Undersecretary for finance Annalyn Sevilla also said the department would give an additional P1 billion to its field units for the provision of learning resources.
Around P450 million will also be given to buy supplies for the implementation of health protocols in schools and offices, said Sevilla.
The DepEd initially gave P9 billion to its field units for the provision of learning resources. This supplemented other funding sources, such as the Special Education Fund of local government units and donations through the Brigada Eskwela.
Other local government units gave gadgets and pocket WiFi units to public school students and teachers.
Private schools start early
In private schools, which were allowed to start classes as early as June, internet connectivity continued to be an issue, even though these institutions were seen as more capable of implementing online learning.
"May students na nadi-disconnect sa call. Minsan kasi mabagal internet nila, or as in, hindi sila maka-attend ng synchronous classes kasi hindi kaya ng internet connection nila," said Mary Grace Esmaya, who teaches at a school in Pasig City.
(We have students who get disconnected from the call because sometimes they have slow internet service, or they couldn't attend synchronous classes because of internet connection.)
"Hindi naman din kasi maiwasan [na magkaroon ng issues]. So, adjust lang kung kailangan," she said.
(Issues can't be avoided so we just have to adjust if needed.)
Enrollment in private schools was halved this year, with only 2.1 million registering from 4.3 million last year. Education officials have attributed this drop in enrollment to the pandemic's effects on the income of Filipinos.
Some 400,000 private school students also transferred to public schools this year, according to the DepEd.
Overall, enrollment is still short of 3 million students from the previous year. The DepEd has said it was still convincing parents of unenrolled learners to join the school year.
Public schools would continue to accept late enrollees until November as long as the student could attend 80 percent of the total class days for the academic year, which ends June next year.
— With a report from Gillan Ropero, ABS-CBN News