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UPLB students demand inclusive acad policies amid blended learning woes

The release of the OVPAA memorandum lifting academic ease policies was met with protest by UP students, calling the University to champion inclusive education and provide basic student services.

Words by FJ Masangkay

UP students mobilized to call for inclusive education and to urge the UP administration to heed the calls of its constituents, in light of the release of the Office of the Vice President for Academic Affairs (OVPAA) Memorandum No. 2022-127.

The memorandum lifts academic policies suspended since the second semester of A.Y. 2019-2020, including the no-fail policy. This was amid the University’s announcement of its transition into blended learning for A.Y 2022-2023.

According to the memorandum, students can now be given a grade of 4.00 or 5.00. Moreover, the regular course load is now a minimum of 15 units. 

Furthermore, academic delinquency rules – warning, probation, dismissal, and permanent disqualification are reinstated. The Maximum Residency Rule (MRR) meeting is also enforced again. In addition, deadlines for dropping and filing of leave of absence will be observed. 

Meanwhile, while University policies on attendance will now be followed, the memorandum also states that “the faculty may adopt different attendance requirements considering their student’s lack of or poor Internet access, COVID-19 infection, and other pandemic- or disaster-related concerns.”

“Do better, UP!”

In response to the release of the memorandum, UPLB students mobilized at Carabao Park last August 30. The mobilization bore the theme: “Champion inclusive education, reinstate academic policies! Do better, UP! Heed our calls!”

Student councils and several organizations including Rise for Education – UPLB, and individuals such as 39th Student Regent Siegfred Severino have condemned the lifting of policies. 

“Ang dagliang paglalabas ng ganitong memorandum ngayong sumasailallim pa lang ang Unibersidad patungo sa unti-unting pagbubukas ng face-to-face classes ay aming kinukondena sapagkat hindi ito makatarungan lalo na’t maraming Iskolar ng Bayan ang tiyak na mapag-iiwanan,” the College of Economics and Management Student Council said in a statement. 

(We condemn the hasty release of this memorandum now that the University is undergoing the gradual opening of face-to-face classes because it is not fair, especially since many UP students will surely be left behind.)

In addition to the August 30 mobilization, UP campuses conducted the First Day Fight during the first week of classes, calling to champion inclusive education in light of the suspension of academic ease policies.

In UPLB, the program was conducted last September 6 at Carabao Park, joined by student councils and progressive groups.

Student Regent Severino addressed the struggles brought by the OVPAA Memorandum No. 22-127 due to its anti-student policies, reiterating the lack of financial support and retrofitting of the classrooms in the University.

On the other hand, UPLB University Student Council (USC) Chairperson Gean Celestial emphasized that the UP administration is not keen on believing students’ grievances on the system policies that the administration forwards.

Rise for Education – UPLB’s Arvi Pascual emphasized the need to encourage fellow students to stand for the rights to inclusive education.

Sa gitna ng paghihirap natin, huwag tayong tumigil sa paghamig sa ating mga kapwa estudyante na tumindig sa ating karapatan sa inklusibong edukasyon,” Pascual said.

(Amid our struggles, let us not cease in encouraging fellow students to stand for our rights to inclusive education.)

Students urged the University administration to heed constituents’ calls amid a difficult transition from remote learning to a blended learning setup.

OVPAA Memorandum No. 2022-88, which was released last June 20, announced that the UP System will finally be shifting to blended learning, combining online and face-to-face instruction. 

There are three main blended learning models: blended online learning, which is fully online; blended block learning, which combines a block of independent online learning and independent face-to-face sessions; and classic blended learning, which alternates face-to-face and asynchronous online learning.

New concerns in the new setup

While the release of OVPAA Memorandum No. 2022-88 is a welcome development on the calls for the safe return of face-to-face classes, students raised concerns mostly concerning financial and health issues.

In a [P] Live interview last July 30, Celestial shared some of the students’ concerns regarding the implementation of blended learning.

Celestial shared that they have received mixed reactions from the students when USC relayed the announcement regarding the shift to a new learning mode.

She said, “Iba-iba na ‘yung naging emotions ng mga students natin. Nung una siyang pinublish ng UPLB USC, nakakuha tayo ng iba’t-ibang reactions. So, nakita natin na merong mga estudyante na natuwa sila sa idea na blended na nga or kumbaga nandiyan na talaga ‘yung face-to-face na aspect. Meron ding mga ‘di gaanong natuwa dahil nakita nila na parang ibinagsak na naman sa atin ‘yung magiging mode natin. Wala talaga tayong buffer period, buffer time, na i-absorb lahat yung nasa guidelines, ‘diba?”

(There were varied emotions from our students. When the news was first published by UPLB USC, we got different reactions. So, we have seen that there are students who are thrilled by the idea of blended learning or that the face-to-face aspect is really already coming. There were also those who were not very happy because they saw that our mode was simply dropped on us again. We did not really have a buffer period, buffer time, to absorb everything in the guidelines, right?)

UPLB has been under the remote learning setup for two consecutive years due to the pandemic – with each year constantly posing challenges to students and faculty. These challenges include problems with Internet connectivity, heavy academic workload, and financial struggles, which were worsened by calamities and the health risks posed by the pandemic (READ: UPLB students, faculty confront persisting challenges 2 years into remote learning).

Meanwhile, similar to existing problems in previous semesters, students were burdened by the inaccessibility of the Student Academic Information System (SAIS) during the registration period for the first semester of A.Y. 2022-2023.

Challenges in attending face-to-face classes

With student attendance for face-to-face classes being required for certain courses this academic year, Celestial put into question the financial, physical, and mental preparedness of the students. These include paying for the rising dorm, food, and transportation fees, complying with the vaccination requirements, and adjusting again to the new learning setup, among other things.

Andiyan din yung physical aspect. […] Then may mga fellow students tayo na up until now, hindi pa sila nakakakuha ng vaccine booster. And of course mentally, kasi parang sa loob ng two years, nasanay kasi tayo na online ‘yung set-up. Yung online set-up itself, naging exhausting siya sa part nating mga students […] So how much more na tinatanaw natin na may pagbabago naman sa mode of learning natin?” Celestial added, citing physical and mental concerns of returning students.

(There is also the physical aspect. […] Then we have fellow students who have not yet taken vaccine or booster shots. And of course mentally, because it seems like within two years, we got used to the online set-up. The online set-up itself became exhausting for us students […] So how much more now that we see that there is another change in our mode of learning?)

For some students who have begun their freshman year fully online, A.Y. 2022-2023 will be the first academic year where they may be required to attend face-to-face classes during the pandemic.

“‘Yung kahandaan din natin – preparedness kumbaga yung nagiging restriction kung gusto ba talaga natin itong blended learning, or kung parang we are forced to accept it kagaya nung nangyari sa atin when we transitioned to an online setup,” she added.

(Our lack of preparedness becomes a restriction, because we ask ourselves if we really want blended learning, or we are just forced to accept it like what happened when we transitioned to an online setup.)

With regards to COVID-19 policies, Celestial noted that in the OVPAA memorandum 2022-88, face-to-face classes will proceed in Alert Level 1, will be limited to certain capacities in Alert Levels 2 and 3, and will be suspended upon Alert Levels 4 and 5.

Meanwhile, Celestial disagreed with the suggestion from the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) administration during a meeting with the CAS SC. The administration reportedly suggested that students should avoid choosing courses offered in Model 2 or 3 if they cannot commit to face-to-face activities.

Celestial said that aside from the possibility that it will only delay their program completion, this policy restricts the students – especially the graduating ones – of their right to education and finish their studies on time so they can help with their families’ financial needs.

Bakit natin nire-restrict ‘yung right ng student na makapag-aral ‘diba kasi nga merong mga estudyante na hinahabol na nila yung mga graduation nila kasi ang goal nila, maka-graduate, makatulong sa family nila by securing a stable job ‘diba. Pero ‘di nila ‘yun makukuha kung nire-restrict sila ng mga ganitong policies natin, na hindi mo pwedeng kuhanin kasi hindi mo kayang mag-face-to-face,” she said.

(Why are we restricting the right of the students to education? Students want to graduate on time because their goal is to help their families through securing a stable job. But they cannot achieve that if these types of policies restrict them from attending face-to-face classes just because they cannot commit to such a setup.)

Meanwhile, in line with the demand for student spaces in the campus, Celestial assured that the LRC Learning Hub will continue to operate despite the shift of learning setup.

During the finals week of the second semester of A.Y. 2021-2022, the Learning Hub at the Student Union Building was opened 24 hours a day to cater to students’ academic needs (READ: UPLB student leaders recount student militancy leading to victory of #OccupySU campaign).

On student consultations and financial assistance

In a separate [P] Live interview, Director of the Office of International Linkages Asst. Prof. Anna Firmalino clarified that students will not be able to choose any of the blended learning models, but are instead required to follow their respective unit’s chosen model for their courses.

She added, “Kung ano ‘yung model na i-identify ng department or institute, which is based on how we would fully achieve the learning outcomes. […] Hindi po pinipili ng ating mga university units yung model based on their preference. They will look at which is the most flexible model that can deliver the learning outcomes for that course, and that is how they will choose the model.”

(Whatever model the department or institute will identify is based on how we would fully achieve the learning outcomes. […] Our university units do not choose a model based only on their preference. They will look at which is the most flexible model that can deliver the learning outcomes for that course, and that is how they will choose the model.)

Firmalino added that the decision-making process for each of the programs will include student consultations. However, Celestial noted in a separate interview that not all colleges held constituent-based consultations despite being a provision in the memorandum.

As a response, some local student councils have set up their own consultations with the concerned college units. They also released sensing forms to determine which model do students prefer for each course, before forwarding them to the administration of their respective colleges or departments. 

“So pinadaan po natin siya sa CSL [Council of Student Leaders]; meron din pong ni-release na forms ang mga local councils natin. So parang joint effort talaga siya ng admin ‘tsaka ng mga student councils natin,” Celestial said.

(So we ran it through in the CSL; our local council has also released forms. So it’s like a joint effort between the administration and our student councils.)

Firmalino also said that even though students have more courses under Model 1 than under Models 2 or 3, then they are still expected to be present on campus. Firmalino added that because UPLB is a residential campus, it is expected that students will return in-person.

Firmalino also noted that students who are hesitant to stay in the campus due to financial struggles may avail the Student Learning Assistance System (SLAS). SLAS aims “to expand the support to financially-challenged students and expedite the processing support for academic activities”.

Moreover, Celestial said that they are exploring the possibility of requesting financial assistance from the UPLB administration for students who will have difficulty returning to the campus. However, she noted the limitation of such services.

“‘Pag usapin ng financial services, lahat kasi ‘yon kinakailangang dumadaan sa application. […] Hindi talaga lahat ng students na nangangailangan ay kayang i-accommodate ng services natin, given na limited din naman ‘yung mga available na slots doon,” she said.

(All financial services go through an applicatication process. […] Not all students who are in need of the services can be accommodated, given the limitation of slots.)

In relation to this, last August, the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) proposed a P2.54-billion budget cut for the entire UP System in 2023. Students have continuously aired their demands for higher budget provisions for the studentry, as well as the sectors of faculty and staff.

(RELATED STORY: UPLB students, staff call for higher provisions amid infrastructure drive in proposed additional budget)

Students call on the University administration and the national government to provide a sufficient budget to fund basic student services. [P]

Watch the full [P] Live interview with OIL Director Anna Firmalino here.

Watch the full [P] Live interview with UPLB USC Chairperson Gean Celestial here.

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