Words by Coleen Mañibo
By scrambling to reopen schools without adequately capacitating them, the state is actively shooting itself in the foot. However, the students are the ones who will bleed.
After making students languish under the ineffective, costly, and inaccessible distance learning for more than a year, Duterte and his counterparts in education are only now looking to reopen campuses.
The Philippines is the last country to allow limited face-to-face classes, its schools having been closed for far longer than the global average of 79 days. The state’s failure to ensure the gradual and safe resumption of physical classes at the soonest possible time has rendered 31 million students more vulnerable to the consequences associated with prolonged school closures such as learning and earning loss, mental distress, and heightened risk of drop out, among others.
Though limited face-to-face classes for tertiary students in medical courses were approved in January, it was only in September that Duterte and the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) considered expanding the scope for the program. Meanwhile, 120 public and private schools are set to conduct half-day physical classes every other week for Kindergarten, Grades 1-3, and technical vocational senior high school students beginning November 15.
Both CHED and the Department of Education (DepEd) have released guidelines for the conduct of physical classes, crafted alongside the Department of Health (DOH), but the question remains: are our schools ready?
The short answer: While the guidelines released by the state departments are sound on paper, it is another thing to implement them, especially as the National Government has placed much of the heavy-lifting on educational institutions. For example, schools that wish to reopen need to be retrofitted to allow for physical distancing, but both the enacted budget for 2021 and Duterte’s proposed budget for 2022 have slashed the budgets necessary for such renovations. At the tertiary level, higher education institutions (HEIs) are also expected to shoulder the medical costs if a student participating in limited face-to-face classes contracts the virus.
Ligtas na balik-eskwela cannot be fulfilled if the sector isn’t given an adequate budget from the get-go. Education groups’ calls for weekly antigen testing, mass hiring of school nurses, and subsidizing of medical costs for infected stakeholders necessitate funds that the state has, but simply has not provided yet.
Educators and frontline workers were initially assigned to the B1 priority category, but they were raised to A4 in April 2021. In September 2021, CHED reported that there are currently 9,795 vaccinated students out of 13,188 limited face-to-face classrooms, and 1,003 vaccinated faculty out of 1,048 total attending personnel. In contrast, 57% of the entire 970,000 teaching and non-teaching employees have been immunized against the virus in basic education.
Worse, pupils who are harmed by school closures are predicted to earn 3% less over the course of their lives. In other words, they will each lose around P6,600 in annual wages. In the long run, the government’s unwillingness to meet the conditions for the safe return of physical education classes could cost the country P11 trillion in future wages and productivity; not to mention the lost earnings of parents who stayed at home to help their children with their studies. As a result of these losses, our annual gross domestic product (GDP) could fall by 1.5 percent for the rest of the century.
Fascism in the state is also represented in numerous local regulations in schools. There have been instances where universities have given students contracts prohibiting them from criticizing institutional policy. The Mater Ecclesiae Academy agreement form, for example, prevents students from posting anything that could “impact” the school’s name or employees. Students at the Doña Remedios Trinidad Romualdez Medical Foundation face a different, but equally anti-democratic situation: in the College of Nursing, students must sign a waiver agreeing that the institution would not be held liable if they contract COVID-19 while on duty. Only recently, students from the Saint Louis University asked for an ease in academic requirements due to the already detrimental physical and mental exhaustion.
To end this excruciating crisis the education sector faces, the state must work towards the safe resumption of physical classes aligned with grassroots recommendations and response, fulfill their obligation to the education sector, and ensure the democratic rights of the education stakeholders.
The struggle for a nationalist, scientific, and mass-oriented education continues. [P]
Photos from the Department of Education and the College Editors Guild of the Philippines
Layout by Vince Dizon
Coleen Mañibo is a 4th year Dentistry student and currently the Secretary General of the National Union of Students of the Philippines (NUSP), the broadest and widest alliance of student councils and governments in the country.