ASEAN Beat | Society | Southeast Asia

Are Schools in the Philippines Ready to Open in a Pandemic?

The start of the school year in the Philippines has been delayed, again. Can the Duterte government gets its act together?

Mong Palatino
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Are Schools in the Philippines Ready to Open in a Pandemic?
Credit: Unsplash

The Philippine government’s decision to again postpone the opening of public schools from August 24 to October 5 reflects the difficulties it is encountering in addressing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

When COVID-19 lockdowns were imposed in March across the country, classes in most schools were already ending. Thus, the disruption caused by the pandemic to the learning of most students was minimal.

As the public health crisis intensified, the traditional June opening of classes was moved to August. This was seen by almost all stakeholders as necessary to ensure the safety of students, teachers, and other school personnel. But they also expected that the government would use the postponement to strategize and implement programs that would make it possible to resume classes without triggering further COVID-19 outbreaks.

During several Congress and Senate hearings in the past three months, lawmakers expressed concern about the readiness of the Department of Education (DepEd) in transitioning to a blended type of learning, which would entail continuous training, procurement of new learning materials, and installation of broadband connections.

In response, DepEd assured legislators and the public that the government was all set for the August start of classes. It insisted that teachers have been advised about innovative teaching strategies, internet access is being improved, and modules are set for distribution.

Nevertheless, some senators continued to pinpoint glaring gaps in the DepEd plan for the opening of classes. For example, they aired concerns that the digital divide will lead to further exclusion. Lawmakers are not convinced that the slow and unreliable internet access in the country can be fixed in time for the scheduled start of the new school year.

While this debate was taking place, the COVID-19 situation deteriorated. By early August, the Philippines topped the ranks of positive cases in the Southeast Asian region. President Rodrigo Duterte and his team were accused of bungling the government’s COVID-19 response.

Will they perform better in overseeing the start of schooling while struggling with the pandemic solution?

Teachers highlighted the failure of the government to conduct mass testing, the lack of contact tracing teams in communities, and the shortage of health care workers who can provide assistance to schools. They raised these issues to press for the further postponement of school openings. They were joined by legislators and local leaders who are worried that DepEd will be overwhelmed with an unmanageable crisis if it continues to insist on opening schools in August.

On August 14, Duterte finally directed DepEd to prepare for an October opening of classes.

This new postponement confirms what many have been asserting about the sluggish preparation by DepEd and the Duterte government when it comes to reorienting the school system under the “new normal.”

Before COVID-19, many schools were barely coping with meager funding, inadequate facilities, and high enrollment rates. It is feared that the pandemic will exacerbate these problems, which critics blame on years of under-investment in public education.

Another big obstacle is poor internet infrastructure in non-urban regions of the country. If DepEd aims to rely on the internet for distance learning, this will require extra spending not just on gadgets and workshops for educators, but also massive construction of communication towers to extend services to all those in need.

COVID-19 did not create the school woes that are under discussion today, but the virus has made it more urgent to resolve these problems before they further undermine the education of Filipino children.

Meanwhile, many colleges and universities, which are mostly privately owned, have started classes despite the fear that many students from poor families will be left behind. Students whose parents lost jobs and livelihoods during the pandemic might be forced to drop out. Some groups argued that it might be better to adopt an “academic freeze” instead of allowing schools to operate while the pandemic is still raging.

But this controversial proposal was also rejected since it might do more harm to young people whose right to education will be denied to them.

The postponement of the new school year until October has given space to the DepEd and the Duterte government, which is scrambling to revive many sectors of the falling economy.

In the end, the government has to make itself accountable for whatever will happen once classes start in October.

Since March, the government has fared poorly in handling the health crisis, proved helpless in reversing the record decline of the economy, and gained notoriety for repressing the media. Will its lackluster leadership do any better in preparing for the delayed-again school year? If the government messes up the education of millions of students, the backlash might not just doom the electoral chances of the ruling party in 2022 but could also threaten the future of Duterte’s presidency.