Left behind: Year 2 of pandemic magnifies education crisis

By Leah Perez

DepEd may fail to give attention to the needs of teachers, parents, and students, but media should note that DepEd’s failure echoes the disregard at the highest levels of the national government of the importance of education in economic development. 

THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC threw the country’s schools off course. It showed how the government was at a loss about how to address or mitigate the devastating impact of two years of lost learning in basic education. The health crisis further highlighted the long-standing weaknesses that have hounded the educational system.

In 2021, students, parents, and teachers struggled with online learning even as a pilot run of limited face-to-face classes began on November 15. Moving forward to 2022, the Philippine school system may re-open schools for face-to-face classes, but the country will continue to lag behind most countries whose schools re-opened a year ago. 

Look Back to Year 1

The health crisis shut down regular schooling in March 2020, even in provinces which were relatively free of COVID-19 infection. Media reports recorded the president’s decision to shut down schools until a vaccine became available. There was no discussion of issues and consequences, no talk of having to deal with the long- and short-term impact of that decision.  

In the course of the first year, the basic education system (K-12) failed to develop effective programs for remote learning, mixed, or blended modes of teaching. Given the economic slump, more than 25% of pre-school to high school students did not enroll last school year. Nearly 2,000 schools, both public and private, were forced to close.  

Media cited the Department of Education’s (DepEd) enrollment survey in August 2020 that found factors which flagged even more damage to the learning process. The lack of digital devices, insufficient mobile data allowance, and unstable internet connection were among the primary concerns raised by parents and students about distance learning. More than 6.9 million cited unstable mobile and internet connections, over 6.8 million noted lack of devices suitable for distance learning, while another 6.2 million cited insufficient load or data allowance.

According to a report by the Economic Policy Institute in September 2020, one of the “most critical opportunity gaps” in online learning is the “uneven access” to devices and the internet. The study identified the digital divide affecting not only the students but also their parents and teachers who struggled to adjust to the different pedagogical methods. Students with special needs were pushed further into the margins.

These were hardly discussed by education officials who accepted Duterte’s decision with little discussion.  

om the ashes. 

Long-standing institutional problems 

But the ills of the national educational system are deeper than just those surfaced by the pandemic. 

Some media accounts called attention to the findings of the World Bank (WB) which released its assessment of the country’s educational system last July 2021. The report highlighted the problems that have hounded the

system even before COVID-19’s disruption.

Based on three multi-country assessments, more than 80% of Filipino students fell below the minimum levels of proficiency expected of their grade levels, particularly in reading, writing, and mathematics. Citing data from 2019, the report established that the crisis in education had set in even before the pandemic.

Government officials reacted defensively to the report, but were focused more on the failure of the WB to advise government officials about the findings before the study was released. Education Secretary Leonor Briones demanded an apology from WB, which she got, but the findings were retained.  

CMFR cheered Inquirer.net and InterAksyon for their reports citing studies from the Asian Development Bank Institute (ADBI) and Philippine Business for Education (PBEd) to back up evidence already presented by the WB in its critical assessment of the state of Philippine education.

Covering the crisis

Different reporters covering education as a regular news “beat” took up these problems. But daily coverage was largely reactive, echoing the government’s assurances and other statements. 

The media needed to point out that such a broad issue required a broad societal response, involving other agencies, policy groups, and the private sector. It should have checked out public opinion both in the press and other fora and plumbed the reactions of those severely affected: the teachers, students, and parents as stakeholders. Indeed, the business community whose companies depend on the stream of graduates prepared to join the work force of the country would have had much to say about the severe setback caused by the two-year shutdown on a system already weakened by other institutional failures. 

But media discussions did not provide this broader perspective about the unprecedented challenge of education in all its aspects. This may be due to the media’s orientation which focuses primarily on the official perspective and what government and public officials have to say. When these sources lack a real understanding of the problems confronting them, media should know better and seek other views about how to meet the challenge of national education. 

CMFR noted the special reports that stood out for shifting attention to special areas of concern. These accounts tackled issues of mental health, the long-term effect of the pandemic on students, the quality of learning in the new setup, and the difficulties experienced by parents and teachers adapting to remote learning. 

Toll in mental health

In April 2021, the Inquirer reported the effect of distance learning on the mental health of young students, heightened by the stress of the pandemic. The report highlighted the burnout of students and teachers, citing a youth and teachers’ group, the Samahan ng Progresibong Kabataan (SPARK), and the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT) which called attention to cases of suicide among learners and educators. Published in June 2021, News.abs-cbn.com cited a behavioral therapist who said that social interaction was one of the “major components in one’s well-being.” 

Poor(er) quality of education

Several reports in July highlighted learning loss, citing an online survey that found that 86.7% of students under modular learning, 66% under online learning, and 74% under blended learning said they “learned less” compared to the traditional face-to-face setup.

Parents’ and Teachers’ woes

In September, CMFR cheered Inquirer.net and Rappler for focusing on the hardships brought by remote learning. Inquirer.net published a two-part series that put a human face on the crisis, illustrating the condition of public school mentors as “overworked and underpaid” while also bringing to light the difficulties of parents who have to help out in teaching their children. 

Parents were are doing their best to co-teach their children alongside teachers. Teachers said it’s double their work and not all were tech-savvy. Many parents said they had already forgotten their own school lessons and could hardly help their children. Consider how much more difficult it was for parents who never even finished their own schooling. 

Lack of support

Similarly, Rappler published a Newsbreak report that focused on the need for the government to provide support to indigent families to acquire digital gadgets. It cited a survey which showed that very few families received assistance to enable their students to access remote or distance learning, especially in regions outside Metro Manila. Reports also showed how families and teachers used their own money to adapt to the new learning system. 

Children with special needs

Pushed further into the background were children in conflict with the law (CICL), children with disabilities, and others with special needs. Fortunately, Rappler covered how the COVID-19 pandemic and distance learning heightened the struggles faced by the visually-impaired last October. The report cited a teacher and a parent who said that the lack of assistive technology and access to the internet as the reasons why many blind and visually impaired students were missing classes despite the free tuition offered in some public schools. For its part, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) looked into the impact of the pandemic on 17-yr-olds Pat and Gino (not their real names) in a juvenile detention center in Malabon, last November.   

Missed opportunities, Challenges ahead

The issue of education amid the health crisis has been largely the elephant in the room in the regular meetings held by the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) with President Duterte. UNESCO stressed the consequences of school closures citing “learning loss, mental distress, missed vaccinations, heightened risk of drop out, child labor, and child marriage.” As a consequence, media largely ignored the need to give prominence to education policy as an urgent matter and thus failed to hold the government accountable for a deeply misguided policy. 

But the Duterte administration has shown little to no genuine interest in education. While DepEd receives the bulk of the national budget, the amount remains insufficient and its use needs to be reviewed. Education gets just 16% of the total PhP5.024 trillion proposed 2022 national budget, lower than the 17% share of education in 2021 and only slightly higher than the 15.8% share in 2020. 

DepEd may fail to give attention to the needs of teachers, parents, and students, but media should note that DepEd’s failure echoes the disregard at the highest levels of the national government of the importance of education in economic development. 

The Duterte administration, for instance, has given hefty salary increases to the police and military while teachers wait in vain for their meager salary adjustments. It’s also this president that prioritized infrastructure, militarism, and its own confidential, intelligence, and contingency funds for 2022. Worse, the administration did not show a sense of urgency about the issues raised by global studies showing long-standing weaknesses in the educational system. It has shown little curiosity about what other countries have done to mitigate the negative impact of the pandemic.  

The dire situation calls for a unified effort to identify the hierarchy of problems and to decide what needs to be done, how, and when. And media can do something about putting education on the front burners of the news. As the citizens prepare for the elections, the media should provide enough information about candidates so voters can decide which of these aspirants for high office can rebuild Philippine education from the ashes.