In last ASEAN country to reopen schools, Philippines' students fret about pandemic’s impact on their future

Rassel Meigan Rodriguez | Reporting ASEAN

Posted at Sep 17 2022 01:03 AM

ABS-CBN News
Parents and guardians watch a student inside the Tomas Morato Elementary School on the first day of classes, in Quezon City, Philippines on August 22, 2022. Around 28 millions students went back to school, many in person, after two years of distance learning due to the coronavirus pandemic. Basilio H. Sepe, ABS-CBN News

(Editor's note: This article was done as part of an internship with Reporting ASEAN.)

MANILA - Rediscovering face-to-face interaction and spontaneity. Navigating technology-related woes, and juggling remote and in-person classes. Facing sharp increases in living costs. Worrying if they missed out on quality education due to the Philippines’ school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic, as graduation time nears.

These are a mix of Filipino students’ experiences in the weeks since universities and colleges began reopening their campuses from late August, 2.5 years after shutting their doors due to the pandemic in this country of more than 115 million people.

Millions of university students are back in class, whether in person, online or some mix of the two, in this Southeast Asian country that had among the longest school closures in the world. The Philippines was also the last ASEAN country to reopen its schools, which had been fully closed from 15 March 2020 to 22 August 2022, data from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) show.

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Psychology major Aline Salillas, 22, is glad to be back on campus, its familiar classroom dynamics and interactions with friends. Her school, Ateneo de Manila University in Quezon City, has been holding mainly on-site classes since 11 August, but has flexible options for students with health-related concerns.

Even the physical tiredness from traveling to and around campus is welcome to Sallilas. “At least, you’re aware that you’re tired,” she shares. “During online learning, you really need to set boundaries (between work/study and rest). Although sometimes, you don’t feel if you’re tired or not.”

Unlike Salillas, Angel Reyes, who is pursuing a degree in materials engineering, has not yet been commuting regularly to the University of the Philippines, whose classes started on 5 September. This semester will remain mostly online, with some laboratory lessons and examinations in person.

Reyes is both excited and nervous at the thought of this mixed mode of study. “Sometimes, not being able to interact with good professors feels like such a loss,” says the 21-year-old student. “There was so much they could impart [to] me that I wasn’t able to fully absorb, especially if they don’t really record their class.”

Reyes is quite used to remote learning by now, finding technology to be friend – and foe – in a country where internet penetration is at 82% but is of poorer quality than several neighbouring countries. It was an indispensable means of learning for students, but also a source of exhaustion and other distractions during classes. Recorded class lectures and digital learning material like eBooks helped immensely.

The learning situation, however, was quite different for others, including students living outside the capital. Veverly Avance, who is now a freshman in social work at Southern Christian College in southern Cotabato province, found her first year of senior high in 2020 a struggle – and says she had to pull herself up to eventually become an honour student.

She had initially opted for offline copies of learning modules since she did not have access to a laptop computer and was unfamiliar with her school’s online learning applications. But this method turned out to be inadequate, and she took to watching lecture recordings on her phone in order to keep up with lessons.

“My experience learning remotely … has been the most difficult year of my academic career,” Avance says. “I lost interest in my school activities. I [didn’t] go to subject meetings, since I frequently [ran] into internet problems and [couldn't] afford to [put] load [into] my SIM [card].”

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Students attend the first day of face-to-face classes after more than two years of COVID-19 lockdowns at Pedro Guevara Elementary School in Manila. Maria Tan, AFP

A mother takes a photo of her children before entering school grounds during the opening of classes at a school in Quezon City. Ted Aljibe, AFP

A parent does a last-minute check before sending her daughter to school at the Payatas B Elementary School in Quezon City on the first day of face-to-face classes in all levels. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

Parents send off their anxious children to school on the first day of face-to-face classes at the Payatas B Elementary School in Quezon City. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

Teachers guide students wearing protective masks as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19 as they enter a school on the first day of reopening of classes at Tomas Morato Elementary School in Quezon City. Basilo H. Sepe, ABS-CBN News

Teachers assist students at the Aurora A. Quezon Elementary School in Manila on the first day of classes. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

A student cries as teachers gather students at the Aurora A. Quezon Elementary School in Manila on the first day of classes. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

A woman comforts her son at the Aurora A. Quezon Elementary School in Manila on the first day of classes. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Students pass through a health check to enter at the Aurora A. Quezon Elementary School in Manila on the first day of classes. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Elementary pupils get their hands sprayed with alcohol before entering the classroom at San Juan Elementary School in San Juan City. Jire Carreon, ABS-CBN News

Students from the Manuel Araullo High School in Manila undergo body temperature check before entering the campus on the first day of the school. ABS-CBN News

A teacher scans the temperature of students assembled on the school grounds at San Juan Elementary School in San Juan City during a flag raising ceremony. Jire Carreon, ABS-CBN News

Students wearing masks recite the Panatang Makabayan at the Aurora A. Quezon Elementary School in Manila on the first day of classes. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Students line up to wash their hands at a common washing area with reminders on proper hand-washing at the Aurora A. Quezon Elementary School in Manila. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Students wash their hands at a common washing area at the Payatas B Elementary School in Quezon City. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

Students wear masks inside the classroom at the Payatas B Elementary School in Quezon City. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

A teacher leads a class in a physical exercise at the Payatas B Elementary School in Quezon City on the first day of face-to-face classes. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

Students participate in class at the Payatas B Elementary School in Quezon City on the first day of face-to-face classes after a two-year hiatus because of the pandemic. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

A student recites in front of the class on the first day of face-to-face classes after more than two years at the Payatas B Elementary School in Quezon City. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

Signs inside the class and around the campus remind students of proper health precautions and physical distancing at San Juan Elementary School in San Juan City. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

A sign welcomes the students back after a two-year absence of face-to-face classes at San Juan Elementary School in San Juan City. Jire Carreon, ABS-CBN News

A sign on the door welcomes the students back to class after a two-year absence at Papaya Elementary School in Nasugbu Batangas. Domcar C. Lagto, ABS-CBN News

Students in masks attend face-to-face classes as the school year begins at Kanaynayan Community School, an Aeta village in Castillejos, Zambales. Jun Dumaguing, ABS-CBN News

Elementary school children, accompanied by their parents, get their booster shots at the San Juan Elementary school in San Juan City at the start of face-to-face classes this school year. Jire Carreon, ABS-CBN News

Police officers distribute free face masks to students at the San Juan Elementary School in San Juan City. Rolex Dela Pena, EPA-EFE

Students gather to pray on the first day of the reopening of classes at the Tomas Morato Elementary School in Quezon City. Basilio H. Sepe, ABS-CBN News

Parents and guardians call their wards at the end of first day of face-to-face classes the Aurora A. Quezon Elementary School. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Parents and guardians crowd around the exit of the Payatas B Elementary School in Quezon City to pick up their wards at the end of first day of face-to-face classes. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

Parents and guardians wait for their wards to be dismissed at the end of first day of face-to-face classes at the Payatas B Elementary School in Quezon City. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

Parents and guardians gather outside the gates of the Tomas Morato Elementary School as they wait for the dismissal on the first day of classes after more than two-years without face-to-face classes because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Basilio H. Sepe, ABS-CBN News

HIGHER COST OF LIVING

While the COVID-19 situation has improved enough to allow a reopening of some campuses, the economic crisis that the pandemic ushered in is far from over. In fact, it has been exacerbated by inflation and rising living costs in the Philippines, in the wake of global instability from the war in Ukraine.

Many university students are finding their relief of going back to a degree of normalcy diminished by worries about the increasing costs of transportation, which have been pushed up by higher global fuel prices, as well as lodging.

The country’s inflation rate climbed from 3% in February to 6.4% in July, which was the highest since October 2018, the Philippine Statistics Authority reported. It eased just a bit to 6.3% in August. Average inflation from January to August was 4.9%, higher than the Central Bank’s targeted range of 2-4%.

The minimum fare for jeepneys, a commonly used mode of public transport, was increased by 1 to 2 pesos (1.7 to 3.5 US cents) to reach 11 pesos (19 cents) in July. Another increase is due in September.

Avance, the freshman in social work, saw her motorcycle taxi fare double from the pre-pandemic rate of 10 pesos (17 cents). She also has to fork out extra for trips during downpours and floods in the current monsoon season.

For her part, Salillas worries about her lodging expenses after moving to a condominium that is nearer her university and cuts her travel time, but has higher rent. Compared to the 15,000-peso (262-dollar) rent that she shared with three other roommates before the pandemic, Sallilas now splits the 16,000-peso (280-dollar) rent with two roommates.

LOST YEARS?

Then there are the larger worries that youngsters have as they become pandemic-era university graduates, including reflecting on whether the remote learning of the past two years has equipped them adequately for the future.

Senior student Samantha de Jesus, pursuing a public health degree at the University of the Philippines, feels “very unprepared” for her post-graduate choices – which may include taking the board examination for medical technology or pursuing a degree in medicine. Limited face-to-face laboratory work at the university restarted only from November 2021.

“I realize I may be graduating soon already, and I don’t think I’m ready to move on to the next chapter of working,” she says. “Along the lines of health, it can mean life or death (for future patients).”

Journalism graduate Christina Quiambao’s dissatisfaction with remote learning prompted her to seek out news organisations to write for – while completing her final year at the University of the Philippines in 2021 – in order to gain more of the skills she now uses as a digital news writer.

“Because of the drawbacks of remote learning, my mental health at work can get affected,” she explains. “You could feel down, thinking, ‘do I deserve to be here, when this is just all that I know?’ ”

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These fears are far from surprising given worries about the country’s education system. Prior to the pandemic, the Philippines had the second highest learning poverty rate of 90.9% among nine Southeast Asian countries – just behind Laos’ 97% and Cambodia’s 90%, says the World Bank’s ‘State of Global Learning Poverty’ update for 2022. The Philippines’ figure means that 90.9% of 10-year-olds in the country cannot read and comprehend a simple text.

“What I miss about the classroom is that it’s a sacred space where all is free to speak without judgment,” says University of the Philippines sociology professor Samuel Cabbuag. “Now we have to record things, since not all attend discussions. What if [the student] discusses something really sensitive, and it’s recorded?”

Although the school closures took out the “liveliness and spontaneity” around in-person discussions and collective art experiences, arts instructor Con Cabrera looks forward to adapting some remote methods to face-to-face settings while continuing policies of “empathy” and “reasonable flexibility”.

“Those years challenged how and what we think of traditional ways of teaching, which includes but is not limited to the frequency of lectures, grading systems, and requirements that gauge the students’ learning status of capacities,” explains Cabrera, who also teaches at the University of the Philippines.

Unlike the country’s primary and secondary schools, which began face-to-face classes on 22 August and are required to be holding five days of in-person classes a week by November, universities have room to decide whether, and when, to shift back to in-person classes. They are, however, required to adhere to minimum public health standards.

LESSONS LEARNED

For now, the pre-pandemic chatter of young people out and about is back in some university premises. But remote learning is here to stay, at least for some time, as most universities combine online and on-site platforms.

“I feel like it would be the best of both worlds,” Uean Carlos, a civil engineering student from Mapua Malayan Colleges Mindanao in southern Davao City. Some of his in-person classes also stream online, so “I can come to school for subjects that I deem to be difficult, and for lax subjects, I can stay at home.”

Micah Bacani, who graduated in computer engineering this year, says the pandemic lockdowns do not have to mean missed opportunities. “There are skills that weren’t developed because we were not given access to on-site activities, but I believe that there are also extra skills gained,” he says, including independent learning. “Different experiences give different things learned.”

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