Words by Fiona Uyyangco and Kyela Jose
“Iskolar ng bayan, ngayon ay lumalaban!”
Such a boisterous phrase is no stranger to the UPLB community. It is omnipresent in rallies, mobilizations, convocations, university events, and even the graduation ceremony.
It is, however, not a mere phrase carelessly thrown in the open air. What encompasses this boisterous phrase are the devotion for student welfare, the cries for genuine change, and the longing hope of the UP student sector amidst the unjust system that continues to impede their rights for quality, inclusive, and compassionate education.
For every semester that rolls in, the student sector reiterates their calls by means of a First Day Rage. Unifying on the first day of classes as a tradition to uphold and heed the needs of the students.
To name a few, First Day Rage was organized by the UPLB University Student Council on August 3, 2016, calling to junk SAIS, end commercialization of education, and hold the PAEP administration accountable. Another first day rage was organized again by the UPLB University Student Council on August 02, 2017, asserting their calls for free education and no tuition collection.
Although the community was forced to disperse and return to their hometowns due to the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, the first day rage tradition lives on. Last March 1, 2021, UPLB Kilos Na live-streamed a First Day Rage Online Mob on platforms Zoom and Facebook. The online mob focused on the call for a #LigtasNaBalikEskwela as remote learning became the primary mode of education. It goes to show that the community continues to share the same values despite the distance.
Much like the phrase from earlier, the first day rage is far from being a performative stunt to make the headlines. The first day rage is an alleyway for desired change for the betterment of the studentry. It serves to highlight the problems which the community faces and to amplify the demands of the student community.
While unification and tradition are worthy of celebrating, the mere existence of the First-day Rage insinuates that the student sector is still plagued with academic concerns that are yet to be addressed by the administration. With the country still in a state of emergency due to COVID-19 threats, concerns have stretched beyond the familiar academic issues.
There was hope
In 2021, the pressure was high.
The Philippines was one of the remaining countries in the world that was yet to resume face-to-face classes. It was shortly after this news that the Inter-Agency Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) finally approved the implementation of limited classes for all levels in Alert Level 2 areas. Before the end of the year, pilot tests were being conducted in areas at low risk for COVID-19 transmissions, such as Pampanga, Cordillera Administrative Region, and the like. There were even classes held in the National Capital Region.
Alongside this, UPLB colleges and departments started conducting surveys that contained questions on the capabilities of the students to go back to campus. The buzz of possibly returning to campus life, albeit limited, was loud.
There were mixed emotions on the resumption of classes. Sky, a BS Agricultural and Applied Economics student, felt relieved. They even said they felt that “we were finally moving forward after almost 2 years of having to deal with remote learning.”
However, there were students like Eman, from the BS Biology program, that felt excited but afraid along with other students who felt doubtful due to the once again rising positive cases. They even expressed concerns about the number of Filipinos still unvaccinated.
On a deeper note, other students also expressed their anxiety and fear for the resumption of classes. A BS Chemistry student said that she felt anxious upon hearing the news of having face-to-face classes. Also, she thought that she wasn’t even ready enough to answer the survey that they conducted, what more if it is the classes?
A student from BS Nutrition added, “I honestly felt scared because there are still a lot of uncertainties regarding the pandemic. The government still has no clear guidelines on how to conduct F2F classes safely, so I am still hesitant on the matter.”
On top of worrying for their safety, students who live hours or cities away, have to think about the dorms they’re going to reside in. Some students also mentioned that they would have to find a job in order to have money to spend. They also wondered if financial help would be given to the professors, students, and staff that cannot afford to go back to the campus.
The Office of Student Financial Assistance offers the Student Learning Assistance System (SLAS) as an extension of the Student Financial Assistance Online. SLAS began on September 7, 2020, catering to students who are struggling in the remote learning setup in terms of financial capacity, connectivity situation and connectivity options, and learning assistance. Even then, accounts of students who fail to receive financial aid despite qualifying for SLAS are rampant.
At the same time, Eman hoped that UPLB would give an option for students to continue to conduct online classes for students that live far from the campus.
Sky even shared a similar sentiment, “I think it would still be great if there is a remote learning option especially because there are other students who may not yet be able to immediately shift to face-to-face classes.”
Despite the dilemma among the student population, the university was gearing up to make limited face-to-face classes possible. With the positive cases logging record low numbers, it seemed like the normalcy which the community has been craving is within arm’s reach.
A series of unfortunate events
The first piece in the domino effect was Typhoon Odette hitting various parts of the country, particularly the Visayas and Mindanao island groups, last December 2021. Considered a Category 5 supertyphoon, Odette damaged homes and infrastructures affecting a number of students within the UPLB community as well as from other constituent universities, especially in the affected island groups.
Alongside the wrath of Odette was the nearing last day of classes, final assessments, projects, and exams. It came during the most important timeframe of the semester when academic requirements were at their peak.
On December 16, 2021, the UPLB University Student Council (UPLB USC) appealed to the Office of the Vice-Chancellor for Academic Affairs to allow students to complete their academic requirements until the end of the semester, or until finals week that was on January 7-15, 2022, and to suspend exams and academic activities (synchronously and asynchronously) until December 21, 2021.
The appeal was forwarded after the Presidential Advisory Council rejected the same request made days earlier by the united front of the University of the Philippines University Student Council, Rise for Education Alliance, and the Office of the Student Reagent.
On December 18, 2021, Chancellor Jose V. Camacho Jr. through Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Jean Loyola requested the faculty members to reschedule the exams and online assessments for students affected by supertyphoon Odette as a response to the appeal made by the UPLB USC.
Since some faculty members had to extend their course deadlines for students affected by supertyphoon Odette, Acad Union LB requested to extend the deadline for submission of grades. On January 17, 2022, the initial deadline, UPLB Chancellor Jose V. Camacho Jr. released Memorandum No. 12, Series of 2022 extending the deadline for submission of grades to January 23, 2022.
As these exchanges of propositions occurred, the country was once again pulled back into the grim state that it was when the Delta variant caused a surge in COVID-19 cases nationwide. Even with the threat of a new variant that is more transmissible than Delta, restrictions were eased during the holidays at the minimum level which may have sparked the ongoing surge.
Positive cases reached record-high numbers affecting the UPLB community. Students and faculty members test positive for the Omicron variant yet are forced to grapple with sickness to meet their respective deadlines.
While extensions of deadlines are valued, it is a band-aid solution to the bigger problem that the community needs a genuine break and recovery period. The institution should make peace with the fact that not everyone in the community can perform normally because the pandemic is not normal in itself. Coupled with supertyphoon Odette’s aftermath, the community is barely hanging on a thread, struggling to stay afloat.
With the surge of positive cases in the country, the hope of having even limited face-to-face classes dissipated to thin air. A once foreseeable future is once again an abstract dream. How many more remote semesters should the community exhaust themselves for until the government implements tangible measures to address the root problems tormenting the country?
SAIS’ sixth oppressive anniversary
Even with the challenges posed by supertyphoon Odette, the Omicron variant, and the moved deadlines, the enlistment period was still set on January 17 to 21, while pre-registration was set on the week after on January 24 to 27. Adding the final piece to the cake, the deadline of grades still pushed through on the 23rd, leaving little to no room for rest.
Professors and students have expressed that there was no leniency when the deadline for grades was set on a Sunday, which also happened to be the day before the start of the students’ pre-registration week on the Student Academic Information System (SAIS). However, the administration refused to listen.
For the whole of the registration period, SAIS was down. The system would load incompletely, fail to load, or show the 2019 interface of the system. System maintenance is done by the UP Information Technology Development Center (ITDC) in UP Diliman, which further slowed down the enrollment process of UPLB students, and even if they were able to enter, it was still slow. It would take hours before they would be able to enroll. Even then, some were left with zero units at the end of their pre-registration date.
Challenges only continued to present themselves.
For Batch 2020, their enrollment coincided with the access of UP Mindanao to the system. It caused greater traffic to the site and fewer students with their needed units.
As for Batch 2021, a one-hour system maintenance occurred in the middle of their pre-registration date. However, there were cases reported that the system was still down after the sixty minutes was up. To make matters worse, access was again cut short a few hours later, thereby capping the pre-registration of Batch ‘21 at four hours.
This left more students with zero or underloaded units.
These issues then prompted another deadline to get extended. Pre-registration would thus last until January 31, and general registration would be moved to February 2 to 4.
Unfortunately, even if the extension was granted, it could do little as most of the class sections were already closed. Try as the students did, the open registration did even less when SAIS prohibited them from enrolling, indicating that it was not their appointment date.
Despite the whopping 751.9 million peso budget allocated for SAIS six years ago with its yearly maintenance fee, the system repeatedly fails to give the best service to its users as the students are always left to fend for themselves every registration period.
Weighing heavier than SAIS’ website unreliability is the general shortage of offered sections per subject, which proves to be the greater issue. Due to the unreasonable and untimely budget cuts, the scarce teaching staff can only accommodate a limited population of the student body. Despite this being a circumstance that cannot be helped by professors and students, it has still become an occurrence in which students have to compete with one another to be included in the limited slots offered by the classes they need to take.
This goes to show that the six years that have passed have amounted to eighteen semesters of poorly allocated priorities.
Every semester, students have experienced these challenges with it only seeming to get worse as each enrollment period comes around.
Every semester, students have called to #JunkSAIS, yet time and time again, this call has been ignored.
The multiple events that transpired within the UPLB community and other constituent universities gave rise to the call to #MoveTheSemUP. Students and faculty members tirelessly complied with their requirements in the shortened and compressed first semester. To subject them immediately to another semester with hardly any time to rest and recover indicates the very little compassion the institution has.
The UPLB USC along with more than ninety multi-sectoral alliances campaigned for a two-week recovery and wellness break starting from January 29 to February 12, 2022. Also included in the campaign are the following suggestions: February 14 to February 18 for resumption of administrative work and February 21 for resumption of classes.
These efforts were shunned by the institution opting for a disingenuous response to the calls of its constituents. The Office of the Vice President for Academic Affairs released Memorandum No. 2022-16 advising all constituent universities to give their students and faculty time to recover by avoiding synchronous and asynchronous sessions during the first week of the semester and refraining from requiring submission of outputs during the week of the semester.
It is rather disheartening to be under an institution that cannot genuinely heed the calls of its constituents. What would it take for the institution to extend compassion and do their duties with intent? They see their community as a demographic; a number with one-dimensional personality. But this is not in line with the reality that the people within the UP system community are barely coping with all the pandemic situation, supertyphoon Odette aftermath, and faulty systems.
Students should not have to beg for a quality, inclusive, and compassionate education because they deserve it as citizens of the Philippines. In a time such as now, the health and wellbeing of the various UP constituents must be put first and foremost. Professors, students, and staff are entitled to a much-deserved break after the tough semester. Compassion must be extended towards not only those affected by sickness or typhoons but for all. With the pandemic still ongoing with no signs of stopping soon, students and professors could only voice out their rage on the first day of this semester, hoping once again that the administration will heed their calls.
[P] File Photo