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  • A building in Buso-Buso Elementary School in Laurel, Batangas is still mired with mud months after the Taal Volcano eruption in January 2020, in this photo taken on July 24, 2020.
    PHOTO BY Winona Sadia

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    Residents of Barangay Buso-Buso in Laurel, Batangas have more reason to be wary when school opens. The village was among the hardest hit when Taal Volcano erupted in January, and families were still scraping mud off their homes when the coronavirus pandemic struck. Teachers in Buso-Buso Elementary School, which expects about 200 enrollees, admitted they had yet to grasp the “new normal” in education, which requires internet access.

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    Glenda Tenorio said some of her fellow teachers resorted to piso wifi stations – coin-operated machines selling metered wireless connections in nearby sari-sari stores – to go online for training and webinars. “Mahirap dito ang signal e, kahit kami nahihirapan. Kailangan din ng load allowance, pang-internet,” she said.

    In July, teachers were forced to shell out up to Php150 from their own pockets to attend a three-day webinar organized by the regional office of the Department of Education (DepEd). The “chalk allowance” was not enough, Tenorio said. 

    Students who do not own any gadget will have a more difficult time adjusting to distance learning, Tenorio told the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ).“‘Di naman lahat ng bata ay may gadget na magagamit. Kung meron man, sa ilang magkakapatid, isang cellphone lang. Iilan `yung kanya talaga,” she said.

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    The parents of Buso-Buso expressed willingness to adapt to the new normal, but were worried over the demands of the  distance learning setup. “Kapag ang bata minsan nasa bahay at gustong maglaro, hindi mo rin siya matutukan. ‘Pag sa school kasi parang takot pa sila sa teacher, parang naoobliga silang gumawa ng kanilang assignment,” said Gina Villalobos, parent of a Grade 2 student.

    Despite the six-week postponement of school opening, there are still no clear-cut solutions to the problems raised by the parents and teachers of Buso-Buso, which are shared by other parents and teachers across the country. 

    Lack of gadgets, digital skills

    The lack of gadgets is not only felt in remote areas, but also in rich cities like Quezon City, which has 156 public schools. Fernan Gana, president of the Quezon City Federation of Parents and Teachers Associations (QCFPTA), said the city government had provided 20 laptops for teachers in each school, but these were not enough.

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    Chairs are stacked outside classrooms in GSIS Village Elementary School in Quezon City as workers make use of the prolonged summer vacation to renovate some school facilities.
    PHOTO BY Winona Sadia

    A survey conducted by DepEd in June found that tens of thousands of teachers nationwide lacked gadgets and internet connection needed for distance learning. Out of nearly 700,000 teachers who responded, 13% had no laptops or computers at home, and only 41% of those with gadgets had internet connections. 

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    More than the scarcity of gadgets and connectivity, many  teachers did not have the digital skills needed to sustain online learning, Gana said. “’Yung mga medyo mas matatandang teachers, hindi sila sanay sa paggamit ng internet. At the same time, medyo nahihirapan talaga sila kung paano gagawin ‘yung pagtuturo,” Gana said.

    The Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT) Secretary General Raymond Basilio said its members were not confident of teaching online and feared that a significant portion of their meager salaries would likely end up being spent on prepaid internet load. ACT is calling for a Php1,500 monthly load allowance for public school teachers.

    More than the scarcity of gadgets and connectivity, many  teachers did not have the digital skills needed to sustain online learning.

    Education Undersecretary Diosdado San Antonio said digital literacy among teachers should not be the sole basis of determining the department’s readiness for distance learning. Not even half of the students enrolled for the upcoming school year will use online as primary learning modality. “[Ang] mga paaralan, division, regional offices, in full swing na ‘yung mga pagsasanay ng teachers,” San Antonio said.

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    Not as effective as face-to-face classes?

    Some teachers and parents feared distance learning would not be as effective as face-to-face learning. In Buso-Buso, parents even appealed for limited face-to-face classes especially for “difficult” subjects, like English and mathematics, that they admitted they won’t be able to teach their kids. “Karamihan sa amin ay hindi nakapag-aral din,” Villalobos said.

    Gana, a father of four, warned that the country’s standing in reading comprehension could go down further because of students’ prolonged gadget use. “[Hindi] katulad noon na naghahanap ka pa ng libro [at] binabasa mo, so nae-exercise ang reading comprehension mo [and] at the same time, `yung pagsasalita mo napa-practice,” he claimed.

    “Clicking has no relation with reading comprehension. What is important is the processing of the text they’re reading. It’s important that students [are] able to make meaning.”

    Reading Association of the Philippines (RAP) President Frederick Perez allayed this fear. “You can read the digitized format, you can read in printed format. [Just] clicking has no relation with [reading] comprehension. What is important is the processing of the text they’re reading,” he said. “In this pandemic, it’s important that students [are] able to make meaning.”

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    Perez said distance learning would be an opportunity for parents to promote reading at home. “We have to expose our students to authentic texts aside from the books, the audio books, aside from what is digital. [We] have to make all means to promote reading at home in families,” he said.

    Calls for ‘academic freeze’

    With potential hiccups in distance learning emerging ahead of  the reopening of schools, several groups said it might be best for the government to declare an “academic freeze,” and start the school year in January 2021. Teachers Dignity Coalition Chairperson Benjo Basas told PCIJ that the extra time should be used to further train teachers and gather resources for distance learning.

    But RAP, which is composed of teachers handling reading classes, said an academic freeze might result in a “learning lag,” citing studies that found that some students had struggled to catch up upon returning to school from long breaks.

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    “Learning should continue, whatever modality it is. We just have to be prudent and wise in our choice of modality and it should be applicable to our children in our context in our locality. It’s too much to delay it for a year."

    “Learning should continue, whatever modality it is. We just have to be prudent and wise in our choice of modality and it should be applicable to our children in our context in our locality. It’s too much to delay it for a year. For me, four months is enough,” Perez said.

    Former education secretary Bro. Armin Luistro said giving distance learning a shot would be better than halting studies altogether. “Even if they (pupils) learn just half of the competencies, that is already a very important element in ensuring the continuity of learning,” he said.

    Alberto Muyot, president of the nonprofit Save the Children, said it would be unfair to deprive students of learning, despite the limitations brought by the health crisis. “[Ang] matitigil natin, `yung face-to-face classes, pero ‘yung pag-aaral ng bata, patuloy ‘yun. We just have to be patient bilang mga magulang upang maturuan ‘yung mga bata,” he said.

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    To fill the gaps in distance learning, Save the Children launched “Project ARAL” in partnership with DepEd, rolling out educational materials  to be broadcast over TV and radio stations.

    President Rodrigo Duterte earlier heeded the recommendation of DepEd to resume face-to-face classes in areas with low Covid-19 transmission starting January 2021. Face-to-face learning is still the best modality, but groups are now urging government agencies to put in place safety measures for pupils and students.

    A classroom in Buso-Buso Elementary School, left unused since the Taal Volcano eruption in January, has yet to be fixed.
    PHOTO BY Winona Sadia
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    “Sa panahon ng pandemya, kailangang matiyak ‘yung kaligtasan ng bawat guro [at] mag-aaral. Pinu-push natin na magkaroon ng clinics, sapat na health workers, at sapat na kinakailangan sa eskwelahan para matiyak na ligtas ito,” ACT’s Basilio said.

    ‘Learning must continue’

    Perez said it was time to integrate new skills in the curriculum. “Teachers and parents should be ready to face the new normal with new modalities in reading, writing, speaking, listening, viewing and presenting. [The] new normal calls for new skills, actually, skills that have not been given importance like listening and speaking and then viewing and presenting,” Perez said.

    San Antonio stressed the need for communication between parents and teachers. “Communication will be a very important aspect of our distance learning delivery modality,” he said.

    For his part, DepEd Undersecretary Nepomuceno Malaluan said the pandemic might be an opportunity to elicit greater participation among parents in their children’s learning process. Parents have relied on schools for children's learning, "which is not really the ideal because a lot of learning has to happen at home,” he said.

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    Villalobos, one of the Buso-Buso parents, admitted that playing a bigger role in her children’s learning process would be difficult. “Kahit anong mangyari, ginagapang namin ‘yung mga bata sa pagpasok. ‘Yan lang naman ang maipamamana namin sa mga bata.”-PCIJ, September 2020

    Winona Sadia finished AB Journalism at the University of Santo Tomas. You may reach her on Twitter (@winonymous) or at sadiawinona@gmail.com for comments or suggestions.

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