Classrooms in the Philippines were silent yesterday as millions of school children hunkered down at home for a second year of remote lessons that experts fear could worsen an educational “crisis.”
While nearly every country in the world has partially or fully reopened schools for in-person classes, the Philippines has kept them closed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the UN says.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has so far rejected proposals for a pilot reopening of primary and secondary schools for fear that children could catch COVID-19 and infect elderly relatives.
“I want to go to school,” seven-year-old Kylie Larrobis said, adding that she cannot read after a year of online kindergarten in the tiny slum apartment in Manila she shares with six people.
“I don’t know what a classroom looks like — I’ve never seen one,” she said.
Larrobis, who enters Grade 1 this year, cries in frustration when she cannot understand her online lessons, which she follows on a smartphone, said her mother, Jessielyn Genel.
Her misery is compounded by a ban on children playing outdoors.
“What is happening is not good,” said Genel, who opposes a return to in-person classes while the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 rips through the country.
A “blended learning” program involving online classes, printed materials and lessons broadcast on TV and social media was launched in October last year.
It has been plagued with problems: Most students in the Philippines do not have a computer or Internet at home.
More than 80 percent of parents are worried their children “are learning less,” UN Children’s Fund education chief in the Philippines Isy Faingold said, citing a recent survey.
About two-thirds of them support the reopening of classrooms in areas where virus transmission is low.
“Distance learning cannot replace the in-person learning,” Faingold said. “There was already a learning crisis before COVID ... it’s going to be even worse.”
Most students attend public schools where large class sizes, outdated teaching methods, lack of investment in basic infrastructure and poverty have been blamed for youngsters lagging behind.
School enrollments fell to 26.9 million in September last year and have dropped a further 5 million since, official figures showed.
Faingold said that many students might “never return.”
“We hope in the next days the enrollments continue to accelerate,” Faingold said.
Remote learning is also taking a toll on children’s mental health and development.
“Long-term social isolation is closely related to loneliness and physiological illness in children,” said Rhodora Concepcion of the Philippine Society for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
“With the disruption of face-to-face learning and social interaction, regression in formerly mastered skills may be observed in children,” she said.
Petronilo Pacayra is worried about his sons, aged nine and 10.
“Their reading skills really deteriorated,” the 64-year-old single parent said in a cramped and dimly-lit room they share.
Pacayra helps them with their school work in between doing odd jobs to make ends meet.
“I don’t like reading, I prefer to play with my mobile phone,” said his youngest child, nicknamed RJ, who is starting Grade 2.
Their school principal Josefina Almarez said that “no children were left behind” in the first year of remote learning.
However, she said some “need special attention.”
Younger children are especially affected by school closures, Faingold said, describing the early years of schooling as “foundational.”
“If you don’t have a strong basis in numeracy and literacy it’s going to be very difficult to learn the other subjects that are part of the primary, secondary or even tertiary education,” he said.
Mercedes Arzadon, a professor of education at the University of the Philippines, said it was “ridiculous” to keep schools shut indefinitely when other countries, including virus-ravaged Indonesia, had shown it was possible to reopen them safely.
“Our youths’ future and well-being are at stake, and so is national development,” Arzadon said in a statement.
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