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Saturday, September 24, 2022

Academic freeze too cold? COVID-19’s impact to the youth and education sector

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The pandemic is far from over as the number of COVID-positive cases skyrocket. Different sectors of society repeatedly express their disappointment for the government’s actions, or lack thereof. One of the issues directly affecting the youth and the academe is education continuity amid COVID-19.

Students clamor for an academic freeze—suspend online and face-to-face classes as long as the virus is not contained. In addition, the youth pushes for a “No Vaccine, No Classes” policy. Despite this, the Department of Education (DepEd) has remained firm on its stance that education must continue “whatever form it is.” As the debate on academic freeze heats up, it begs the question: “What should we do now?”

Why must education be frozen​?
The first issue is ​digital divide. ​This refers to “the gulf between those who have ready access to computers and the Internet, and those who do not.” The majority of Filipinos come from low and middle-income families. Pursuing education during this pandemic leaves behind the students who cannot access computers and they internet, which further widens this gap. Furthermore, not all households have the learning-conducive environment that children are accustomed to at school.

Secondly, parents have suffered great ​financial struggle since the economy has slumped. Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises are among those who are affected. Moreover, Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) are repatriated to the country since a great number of them have lost their jobs abroad. Paying for their children’s tuition is less important than making sure they have food to eat and a home to live in.

Another issue that needs to be addressed is the medium of instruction​. There are skills and competencies that are difficult to grasp through distance learning. Some tracks in senior high school (like Technical-Vocational, Tech-Voc for brevity) require hands-on/practical approaches for students to comprehensively understand the material.

Philippine Classroom
Teachers, in protection mode and Students understand the risk caused by the Pandemic.

Lastly, there is a ​skill ​gap that needs to be filled. Teachers and parents might not possess expertise for the change in the educational arrangement. Parents need to take an active role in their children’s learning, since teachers are not physically present to guide them. Moreover, teachers require training to adjust to the distance learning set-up, since this unprecedented shift in instructional medium has caught everyone off-guard.

However, when talking about the academic freeze, a lot of people left out of the discourse since the anti-poor argument is not holistically inclusive. Examples of these people are students who have special needs and students who rely on the School-Based Feeding Program for their meals. Not only that, but teachers themselves are excluded from the discussion. If classes are suspended indefinitely, it would leave thousands of school workers unemployed, many of whom have already lost their jobs. Moreover, stagnating children in their homes has its own risks, like delinquency. On top of that, ​thawing an academic freeze is just as hard as implementing it.

Should we let it go?
Despite challenges for the resumption of classes, DepEd has organized the Basic Education Learning Continuity Plan (BE-LCP) that addresses most, if not all, concerns which ensures that it is an inclusive framework for education amidst the pandemic. It is rooted on the essential pillars for learning continuity: school readiness, human resources, infrastructure readiness, health safety and transitioning program. The Most Essential Learning Competencies (MELCs) and the Four Teaching Learning Modalities are its most important features.

The MELCs adjust what students need to learn and what skills they need to have. Some competencies that were required in the K to 12 Curriculum were removed since DepEd has taken into consideration the limitations of distance learning and the reduced number of school days.

Meanwhile, the Four Teaching-Learning Modalities ensures that children, regardless of financial capacity and circumstance, are able to continue their education. The face-to-face and blended learning modalities allow students to go to school, provided that minimum health standards are followed and the area is not under community quarantine. On the other hand, distance learning and homeschooling modalities allow students to study remotely at the safety of their homes, whether online or modular. Though the modalities are not one-size-fits-all, this is the most inclusive approach to learning. ​One cannot stress enough the importance of education especially during a time where the country is on a brink of collapse.

Education is an open door.
An interdisciplinary approach where health, economic, social, and other dimensions are integrated with one another is needed to formulate a concrete plan of action as a response to the pandemic. With regards to learning, the government cannot force students to go to school, but conversely, they should not take away the choice of pursuing education to those willing and capable. However, education should be an open door where the plight of the students are heard. ​Despite the BE-LCP being comprehensive, it still has its weaknesses. There is still room for improvement.

Firstly, it is not enough to prohibit the increase of tuition. A limit should be imposed on institutions and regulate the fees to ensure that unnecessary payments are flushed out. Second, parents should acquire skills training to help their children in their learning. Currently, only teachers receive these skills training in preparation for the school year. Third, the learning content should emphasize more on socio-political awareness, volunteerism and civic engagement to instill the need for compassion and outreach during these desperate times. Lastly, the grading mechanics need to be heavily revised, since online tests are more of a hassle and pressure compared to its physical counterpart. Not all students have the luxury of having an environment where they can focus.

For the first time in forever.
People are not ordinarily confronted with the reality of their privilege. If an academic freeze were to be imposed on the grounds of education being discriminatory and anti-poor, then it would have remained frozen since its establishment because ​there has always been an educational inequality​. The pandemic has magnified this issue since now even middle-income families are at risk and struggling to stay afloat. Society has always been a game of newspaper dance, and because of the pandemic, the newspaper has been cut by more than half.

Education is supposed to be the great equalizer​. However, since this has been commodified, access to quality education is limited and people no longer stand on equal footing. Those studying in private institutions and big universities have the advantage over students in public schools. But for the first time, ​we have the capacity to create an educational revolution and lay the foundation for an enhanced and inclusive educational system where the right to education is upheld.

Into the Unknown: Working towards a better normal.
The pandemic is not a wake-up call because there have been numerous red flags in the past that were ignored. The issues we currently face already existed even before COVID-19, and there were not enough people who cared about these problems. Rather, ​this crisis is a consequence of our neglect​, for most part the government’s, since we remained oblivious in our bubble of privilege. When we return to the norm, we should make it a point to make it a better one. The society we return to must not act like nothing happened. We need to confront this truth and work towards a better normal, now that we have a different viewpoint and understanding on what is wrong with our community and how we can improve it.

Justin Altubar is a student leader and G12 HUMSS student
from San Beda University Rizal

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