Today more than 2,000 basic education students in 28 schools in the National Capital Region will attend face-to-face classes.
It’s an offshoot of the sustained decrease in the number of fresh cases recorded daily nationwide, alongside the great strides achieved in the vaccination drive.
The Department of Education assures us that, like the pilot run of face-to-face classes elsewhere in the country three weeks ago, measures that ensure the protection of students and teachers and anticipate less-than-ideal scenarios are in place.
If it were not for the very real threat of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, it would be easy to say that things are looking up, that we are emerging out of hiding, and that all of Philippine society is nearly ready to embrace the new normal. After all, the pilot runs are happening just as the economy is opening up, and a greater number of Filipinos are out and about after more than a year of being cooped up indoors. While no country has yet eradicated the virus, it appeared that we had at least learned to live with the constant threat and protect ourselves from it.
Omicron or not, however, this test of whether schoolchildren—from kindergarten to Grade 3 and Senior High School – can physically return to school without incident will be instructive in the weeks and months to come.
Aside from the health and economic crises, the pandemic also occasioned a learning crisis among students across the country. It highlighted the gaps already present before COVID-19 and trained the spotlight on the great disparity among the millions of learners, whatever their academic level. Some had the advantage of having the tools and enjoying the infrastructure for online learning, the default alternative mode. But more students suffered the consequences of a lack of computers, tablets or even smartphones, and a stable internet connection. Many of them had parents who lost their jobs. And while teachers valiantly stepped up to the role of bringing learning modules to the students’ homes, this practice yielded imperfect results.
As a result, the Philippines had the unflattering distinction of having a learning poverty rate—defined as the share of 10-year-olds who can neither read nor understand a simple story—of 90 percent this August, according to the World Bank.
Earlier, a survey conducted by the Movement for Safe, Equitable, Quality and Relevant Education (SEQuRE) showed that 86.7 percent of students under modular learning, 66 percent under online learning, and 74 percent under blended learning said they learned less under these alternative modes of instruction than they did before the pandemic.
Education is not meant to be experienced in any alternative mode. The traditional mode remains supreme, perhaps only reinforced by the possibilities introduced by technology. Then again, that would only reach its full potential if the gaps in digital infrastructure are addressed.
We welcome these small but decisive steps to reclaim education. Let our decisions be guided by science only—not by fear or ignorance, lest we raise a generation of learners less resilient and less critically minded as the one before it.