Coronavirus exposes wide gap in education

By Arjay L. Balinbin, Senior Reporter

APPLE D. GARCIA, an incoming senior high school student in Pampanga province, north of the Philippine capital, bartered through Facebook a tray of eggs and a bundle of string beans for an old personal computer that she plans to use for her online class this month.

Tatay, who is a tricycle driver, had to borrow money for the tray of eggs and spent P40 for the vegetable,” she said in Filipino by telephone. “The kind-hearted man who gave us the PC said it was old but still usable.”

Apple offers a digital portrait painting service on Twitter to save money for internet connection that she would need when school opens today (Oct. 5).

BW Bullseye 2020-focusPresident Rodrigo R. Duterte has banned physical classes until a vaccine is found for a coronavirus that has sickened more than 300,000 and killed more than 5,000 people in the Philippines.

Public schools nationwide will offer distance learning through online and modular classes. Students get printed handouts that they study and answer at home, and submit to school authorities regularly.

Education during the pandemic is a problem for millions of public school students who don’t have computers at home, not to mention a faster broadband connection needed to handle the bandwidth requirements of Zoom Cloud Meetings or Google Classroom.

Majority of parents of school children or 8.8 million preferred modular learning for their children, while 3.9 million chose blended learning, which involves the use of television, radio and printed handouts, according to results of a Department of Education (DepEd) poll.

Meanwhile, 3.8 million parents preferred online classes. About 1.4 million parents also favored television, while only 900,000 chose radio-based instruction.

For many public schools, parents still have to get printed handouts at the school even if their children opted for online classes.

Shienna Lyn L. Antenor, a master teacher and curriculum head at Concepcion National High School in Koronadal City in southern Philippines, said the school adopted modular learning for its 4,000 students.

But senior high school students might have to mix it with online classes for subjects that require group research.

Education Undersecretary Jesus Lorenzo R. Mateo said parents need not buy an iPad, tablet or computer if they chose modular learning for their children

“These are optional,” he said by telephone. “We keep telling the public and the media that there is no need for parents to buy a gadget. Online classes are not for everybody, which won’t happen given the state of our information and communications technology.”

DepEd data as of Aug. 13 showed 23.21 million students from kindergarten to senior high school have enrolled. About 96% or 21.57 million are public school students.

As the coronavirus crisis intensified, the traditional June class opening was moved to Aug. 24. President Rodrigo R. Duterte again postponed classes to Oct. 5 as infections continued to surge.

It might take the Education department as long as three years to perfect its distance learning materials, education expert Christopher P. Satulan said.

“It normally takes a lot of time to prepare learning materials, which are very important in distance education,” he said by telephone. “In our experience, learning materials are developed every term,” said Mr. Satulan, chief operating officer at AMA Online Education, adding that the reported errors in DepEd’s handouts were understandable.

“There really are errors, that’s why a learning resource platform committee is reviewing these with the help of academicians at universities involved,” Mr. Mateo said in Filipino.

Merlyn D. Lingaling, a public primary school teacher in the mountainous Kayapa town in Nueva Vizcaya, said online learning is impractical in her area. “We adopted modular learning because not everyone has a gadget and internet access,” she said in a mobile phone message.

The additional budget for printers, ink and paper to produce the modules was a challenge, but the school had received help from the local government, she added.

Marvin Jan C. Baladiang, a grade school teacher at a public school in San Jose, Antique in central Philippines, said Education authorities were working on radio and television-based instruction as alternative options. Like many public schools, his school will use modules to teach students, he said.

Glaring gaps in the DepEd’s plan, including concerns about the digital divide, are expected to lead to further exclusion. Senators were unconvinced that the country’s slow and unreliable internet will be fixed in time for classes.

Majority of Filipinos don’t have internet access, Senator Grace Poe-Llamanzares said in a speech at a BusinessWorld online forum on Wednesday, citing an official survey.

“In the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, 94.9% of households do not have access to the internet and surprisingly, in the National Capital Region, only 32.3% of households have access,” she said.

There’s also a huge internet speed gap between highly urbanized cities and rural areas — as much as 5.54 megabits per second (Mbps) versus a measly 1 Mbps in Mindanao, Ms. Poe-Llamanzares, who heads the Committee on Public Services, said.

The Philippines has a fixed broadband average speed of 3 Mbps, slower than Cambodia, Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore, she said. It has the sixth cheapest fixed-broadband rates but the most expensive rates for mobile voice, nearly double that of Vietnam and almost three times more than that of Thailand, she added.

Even Mr. Duterte has threatened to take over telecommunication companies for their bad service.

“We have many parents who can hardly provide their children with basic needs, not to mention quality time, moral and physical support,” Mr. Baladiang said in a mobile phone message. “These kids are clearly at a disadvantage. Another factor is the literacy level of some parents.”

Farnaida A. Kawit, head of an elementary school in Southern Mindanao, bartered her own clothes and sought donations so the school could buy paper reams for printing materials.

They had to come up with 20 reams of paper to print handouts in the first week for Grade 1 students alone, she said by telephone. “The school budget was simply not enough.”

DepEd’s Mr. Mateo said the agency had released a P9-billion printing budget to field offices, but due to communication challenges, some of them were unaware that the fund had become available. He added that funding for government projects is a challenge because of the recession.

Students with learning disabilities will find it even harder to learn, Ms. Kawit said, adding that parents might have to teach them under a homeschool arrangement.

Public schools are not alone in dealing with the so-called new normal. Many private schools were under pressure to cut tuition even if they had to retain the same teaching staff, Elna Leah L. Fonacier, president of Calamba City Private Schools Administrators Association, said by telephone.

They also had to allot a budget for online learning systems for both students and teachers, she pointed out.

Ms. Fonacier said many private schools have closed since few students enrolled, while a number of them have transferred to public schools after their parents lost their jobs.

She frowns at private schools that use the DepEd’s free learning management system. “If we get our materials from them which reportedly have errors, how are we different from DepEd? Why should parents pay private schools?” she asked.

“Private schools should put up something unique and different to elevate the quality of education,” she added.

AMA’s Mr. Satulan said online learning is more common in Western societies, and it will only succeed with the help of parents and guardians.

Schools use various approaches to keep students’ focus and motivate them. “One of them is the point system where students earn points whenever they finish or submit a task,” he said.

The system may not work for all students. “Some will excel online, some are more effective in face-to-face classes,” Mr. Satulan said. “The most important aspect is the child’s foundation from preschool and elementary to junior and senior high school.”

Apple, mentioned at the outset, is nervous about school given the limited interaction with teachers and with nobody to guide her except Google.

“That’s why I really need the internet for my research,” she said. “I just hope everything will go back to normal again because it’s really difficult.”

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