The Philippines is one of only five countries that has not started in-person classes since the pandemic began, stoking inequality fears‘The rich access quality education as the poor suffer’: Learning crisis as Filipino schools stay closed
Like many parents and guardians of young children during pandemic school closures, Miriam Tuazon has faced the stressful job of trying to educate her ten-year-old niece at home in Bulacan, central Philippines.
But for Ms Tuazon and millions of Filipino families, the end is not in sight.
The southeast Asian nation is one of only five countries in the world that has not started in-person classes since the pandemic began in March 2020, and – aside from a limited pilot scheme – it so far has no plans to do so this year.
Education experts have predicted children are set to fall so far behind that it will have a long-term impact on their earning potential as adults, and that without the safety net that school provides they are more vulnerable to abuse, child marriage, and child labour.
Unicef has warned that without urgent action to address the educational shortfalls for some 27 million Filipino children, “the learning crisis could turn into a learning catastrophe”.
“It’s really a struggle for the children to cope academically since they tend to fall asleep during online class when not attended to. They find it hard to concentrate on participating since they are at home,” said Ms Tuazon.
“My niece is very timid and shy. In her first years in school, it was really hard for her to make friends unless they initiated the talk. Staying at home for almost two years now, I feel like she’ll have a harder time being open to the idea of talking to other people,” she added.
Ms Tuazon is not alone in fearing her niece is falling behind in both education and socialisation skills.
In a survey carried out by the United Nation’s children’s agency in May, 84 per cent of parents observed that, despite spending more time helping them, their children were learning less in distance learning than in traditional in-person learning.
In one of the starkest warnings yet, the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA) estimated in September that prolonged school closures could result in a productivity loss in the Philippines equivalent to £159 billion over the next 40 years.
Raymond Basilio, secretary general of the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT), which is campaigning for classrooms to be reopened, said the current situation was widening the gap between the rich and the poor.
“The rich are accessing quality education and the poor have to suffer with this problematic education programme,” he said.
One of the major challenges was internet connectivity and the lack of access to electronic devices, he explained.
According to government statistics, only about 18 per cent of households in the Philippines have an internet connection at home and internet availability is even weaker in rural areas.
“As reported by teachers, in their classes they are supposed to have 30 to 40 students but only around eight to 10 students are actually attending every day,” Mr Basilio said.
Families were struggling economically, he added. “So what will you prioritise – purchasing internet data connection or will you prioritise food?”
Lovelaine Basillote, executive director at Philippine Business for Education, said malnutrition was already playing a role in the country’s poor educational standards even before the pandemic.
“We have to take into account that even before the pandemic learning outcomes in the Philippines were already pretty low, based on international learning assessments,” she said.
In 2018, the Philippines was ranked at the very bottom of 79 countries assessed in reading literacy by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), and also scored badly on mathematics and science. The survey was carried out by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
“Prolonged school closures will have a massive impact on the learning of children now especially because there is a wide digital divide and so many of our students are learning through printed modules with very little interaction with teachers,” said Ms Basillote.
Experts are calling for more widespread vaccinations for teachers, increased stocks of personal protective equipment (PPE), enhanced hygiene measures and better ventilation at schools to allow students back into the classroom.
But Ms Basillote said an effective communications strategy about safety measures was also key to building trust with parents to allow their children to attend.
Parents like Kristel Ann Domingo from Balucan, who has been homeschooling her five and 13 year-olds, are already concerned that their protracted isolation will make it challenging for them to reintegrate with their peers.
“I think the long-term impact of this new normal on my children is that they will be afraid of socialising with other people. Because they are becoming too adjusted or too comfortable with this setup,” she said.
“I don’t even know if my five-year-old son can adjust to face to face classes if given a chance because he hasn’t experienced going to school yet,” she added.
“I’m also afraid that they are becoming too dependent on us and sometimes I wonder if things will go back to normal. Will they be able to do these things required of them independently?”
Regina Sibal, lead convenor of Aral Pilipinas, a coalition of education specialists, suggested Ms Domingo’s mother’s instincts were correct and children were falling behind in socio-emotional development and physical and critical thinking skills.
“It is a limitation on our kids’ development as human beings, to allow them to be resilient and to thrive in certain situations and also for themselves to acknowledge that they can be a part of how to solve or go around problems even at a very young age,” she said.
“As parents we are told not to shield our children from the problems of the world. To a certain extent we have to expose them and teach them how to cope with these issues and wrapping them in their houses is a way of shielding them also from the realities that we have,” Ms Sibal added.
“In looking for solutions to make our community and our country safer and healthier, we should also consider that mental health, social wellness, the emotional health of everyone as well, especially our children.”
It is an issue with worldwide relevance.
While the Philippines is one of only a handful of countries where full-time, in-person education has never re-started – others include Bangladesh, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, although most of these are now re-opening or outlining plans to do so – school closures are still a tactic for many governments in the face of new pandemic waves.
There are currently 57 million children across the world living in countries where schools are closed, according to a tracker from Education.Org.
However, Dr Randa Grob-Zakhary, Education.Org chief executive, said that even these huge numbers masked a still bigger ongoing issue.
“Nearly half of the world’s children remain out of a normal school environment,” she said. “I think we’re blunted to this, especially in countries where children are back.”
According to the latest data, 811 million children live in countries where schools remain at least partially shut. Added to the 57 million above, that represents almost half of the world’s school-age children still affected in some way by closures.
Dr Grob-Zakhary said the focus now needed to be on helping children get back on track, where schools have reopened. There is no excuse anymore for keeping schools closed, she added.
“For every country that is struggling to open fully, there are partner countries around the world that have had similar circumstances, that have done it effectively,” she said.
“We have seen from enough countries that it can be done and it can be done safely. So there’s no question any more of whether or not it can be done or even how it can be. There is no choice not to move forward.”