Getting students back to normal
Lives were lost or inexorably altered in the two years that we had to live under a pandemic cloud. To be sure, the threat of COVID-19 and its variants still hovers over us, but even as we find ourselves blinking in the sunlight as we emerge from the shadows, we realize that recovery demands much more work than was initially thought.
Slowly, economies laid low by the lockdowns and quarantines are getting their bearings; workers are gradually returning to active employment, and students in alert level 1 and 2 areas are getting ready to return to face-to-face classes with outgoing Department of Education (DepEd) Secretary Leonor Briones announcing earlier this week that in-person classes in public schools will resume in time for the next school year starting Aug. 22. But in the early days of the return-to-school arrangement, education officials said they still plan to resort to “blended learning,” or the combination of in-person classes and remote learning.
Feedback has been positive on the return to in-person classes, but several issues have also been raised. Of special concern was the students’ preparedness after two years of virtual isolation. The dismal performance of Filipino students in international and regional assessments (with them being bottom-dwellers in some cases) has not helped matters a bit.
A recent report from Unicef found that the Philippines had the longest pandemic-related school closure among 122 countries, at 70 weeks. The report said that the prolonged school closure had education advocates worried about “learning losses,” citing studies that say remote learning was not as effective as the traditional classroom setup. The government banned in-person classes in early 2020 due to fears of infections spreading among students, and of students consequently bringing home the virus to their families. The gradual resumption of in-person classes and blended modes was only allowed in late 2021.
Educators’ concern over learning losses came from studies that said remote learning was not as effective as the traditional classroom setup. What these learning losses are, one can only guess, but a tweet commenting on the University of the Philippines College Admission results put into perspective how students, in particular those who entered college in 2020, have barely set foot on campus before the government imposed lockdowns. “That’s really unfortunate,” the comment went, because “it’s in campus culture that we are shaped as young adults.” The pandemic, he added, has indeed robbed us of so many things.
More students are expected to enroll this year with the government lifting most of the restrictions on mobility. Last year already saw a one-million increase in enrollments compared to 2020, the height of the pandemic. Late last month, the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases repealed an order requiring college students to secure medical insurance for their in-person class attendance following criticisms that this would only serve as an additional cost.
With the DepEd determined to resume in-person classes in August, which we assume is supported by incoming Education Secretary and Vice President-elect Sara Duterte, it seems obvious that special preparations must have been undertaken by now for those caught in the pandemic recess. Speed and urgency are of the essence, including an honest-to-goodness assessment of how prepared students are to take up their lessons at the proper level.
Aside from students, teachers, too, must be assessed and correspondingly asked to undergo special training on pedagogy to make up for any deficit incurred in the last two years. Likewise, since schools will still have to adopt the blended learning system to be responsive to exigencies during the still ongoing pandemic, teachers need to have the technological know-how and support to conduct simultaneous physical and online classes. Maybe it had to take a pandemic to highlight the years of neglect that the teaching profession had to endure, not to mention the abject working conditions of teachers who have been perennially underpaid and overworked, despite numerous laws and department orders purporting to increase their compensation.
The return to in-person classes is truly welcome, an unmistakable sign of the return to “normal” we all so desire. But for it to be truly meaningful, we will need the cooperation of everyone involved so we would not just catch up with, but prevail over, the challenges of the post-COVID world.
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