Totally ‘unprepared’: The Philippines’ education system is buckling under COVID-19

Niza Mae Cañedo feels anxious about the new school year, which has been postponed from June to October due to COVID-19. Her parents work full-time at their family-owned convenience store, so the 23-year-old freelance writer and graphic designer will be responsible for overseeing her three siblings’ education. One is in fourth grade, the other two are in high school.

“On top of deadlines for both of my jobs, this will add a lot to my workload,” she says. “And we don’t know how the classes will be run at the moment. A lot of it is up in the air.”

As she takes care of her younger siblings, Cañedo worries about time management. “I think there’s a possibility many university students will need to take a gap year,” she says, noting that many students will need to work odd jobs to support their families or watch siblings. “If that happens, there’ll be a year with no fresh graduates, which will then affect the employment system….”

Since March, 27.2 million students in the Philippines have been without access to education due to varying levels of community quarantine in the country’s attempt to curb COVID-19. 

The nation’s population of 108 million has been cautioned to remain at home, while many facilities and businesses remain closed at varying levels.

Restrictions were most severe in Metro Manila, where residents endured a total lockdown. Officially known as enhanced community quarantine, the policy mandated that people remain home, with exemptions for essential services, throughout May. In much of the rest of the country, residents have experienced a modified general community quarantine which allows people to venture outdoors with extra caution.

The shutdown has been somewhat successful in slowing the spread of the virus, with the country seeing over 164,474 confirmed cases as of 18 August since the first case was confirmed in January; however, the lockdown will undoubtedly contribute to the rising inaccessibility of public and social services, such as schools.

Initially, schools considered reopening with face-to-face classes, but the president prohibited a return to schools in his 2020 SONA speech, at least until a COVID-19 vaccine is available. However, many students across the Philippines lack access to reliable internet and many will need to drop out of school to help out with family finances. 

Underfunded and underprepared 

In the Philippines, the typical academic year for primary, high school and most universities run from the end of June to October and again from November to March. Schools usually take breaks in April to June due to intense summer temperatures. 

Since many provinces were still in a partial or full lockdown when the new school year was meant to begin in June, the Philippine Department of Education (DepEd) postponed the reopening until 5 October, mandating online instruction.

Concerned groups of teachers, health professionals, parents and youth have protested the move, urging the government to postpone classes to 2021 due to “unpreparedness”. This concern isn’t new, however, it’s been amplified by the pandemic. Long before the pandemic, many have criticised the Philippines’ education system for being slow to accommodate the needs of students around the country, despite government promises.

President Rodrigo Duterte named education a top budgetary priority during his 2016 presidential campaign. At the time, Duterte promised to double teachers’ salaries, build more classrooms and provide scholarships to the children of military personnel who died while serving the country. 

The Department of Budget and Management’s 2020 budget of PHP 4.1 trillion (or roughly HK$650 billion) allocated the largest budgets to the education and infrastructure sectors. However, the government denied DepEd’s request for an additional PHP 30 billion (HK$4.7 billion), affecting its plans to construct 65,000 more classrooms and hire 43,000 new teachers.

But with COVID-19, came drastic budget adjustments. Suddenly, the Department of Budget and Management slashed funding from pre-existing projects to reallocate the budget for COVID-19 containment. This resulted in a 4.39 per cent budget cut within the DepEd, which directly impacts the system’s ability to adjust to the new online learning methods.

“Even when there’s a budget, families still have a hard time adjusting to the [online] medium [since parents having little time outside work to help].”

Claire Dacay

Taking classes online

In an effort to adjust the education system to accommodate remote learning, the government plans to hand out over 475,000 tablets and 634,000 desktop computers to 21.4 million public school students. The government also vowed to provide at least 190,000 laptops to public school teachers by the end of 2020.

Although this should provide enough tablets and computers for roughly 94 per cent of the country’s public school students, only 22 per cent of public school teachers will receive laptops. 

“Sending these laptops is a really nice gesture, although they might not make it in time for when classes resume,” says Claire Jirah Dacay, a 23-year-old university student based in Cebu City.

Many students have struggled to acquire laptops due to job scarcity and financial troubles, adds Dacay. “Even when there’s a budget, families still have a hard time adjusting to the [online] medium [since parents having little time outside work to help] and often never having learned the material themselves,” she says. “And to my knowledge, the University of the Philippines is just one school trying to remedy this by donating laptops right now.”

Others have taken matters into their own hands, reaching out to local organisations for support. “There are people in the Cebu Barter Community [willing to] barter … educational tools like laptops for old gadgets, old electric fans or any form of hard labour like hand washing clothes or cleaning someone’s house. There are also people willing to donate laptops within that community without asking for anything in return.” 

Access denied 

Unfortunately, the equipment can only go so far. Not everyone has access to fast, reliable, or even functional internet, revealing a great disconnect between the nation’s city hubs and more remote areas. 

Home to one of Asia’s slowest internets, the Philippines sees an average download speed of 23.74 megabites per second (Mbps), based on information provided by internet metrics provider Ookla as of July. That’s compared to Hong Kong’s 192.09 Mbps

The president addressed this concern during his 2020 State of the Nation Address (SONA) on 27 July, saying that he will find a way to improve telecommunications, even if it means closing down two of the Philippines’ major telecommunications companies if they show no improvements by December.

According to 56-year-old teacher Alma Diamante Diaz, students in rural and mountain areas will be hit the hardest. Working in a school outside of Tuburan, a town in Cebu province, Diaz says it’s common for students to lose service due to the high altitude and rural terrain. 

Since they can’t teach in person, Diaz says teachers from her school plan to distribute printed modules, or classwork, for parents to follow at home before school reopens for remote learning on 5 October. “The parents will pick them up then will submit them back at school every Friday for grading.” They are also considering TV and radio lessons, which would be more accessible for those in remote parts of the country with strong TV and radio signals.

“I’m already a college student and still struggling to make ends meet while balancing school and work, I can’t imagine what others will go through just to send their students to school during a pandemic.”

Claire Dacay

Education on hold 

For the Philippine Business for Education (PBEd), a not-for-profit in Metro Manila that pools resources from the business community, restarting schools should be non-negotiable – even if plans aren’t perfect.  

“When schools are closed, working-age Filipinos – typically 15 years old and above – will try to join the labour force instead of staying in school,” says Love Basillote, executive director at PBEd. “What’s worse, they might end up with bad jobs: informal, without employment contracts and benefits.” 

School closures also lead to other associated risks that’ll make it difficult for them to find jobs in the future, such as unplanned teenage pregnancies, drug use and criminal activity. 

Through a phone-assisted survey, PBEd’s workforce development project called YouthWorks PH found that 97 per cent of students have stopped schooling, 86 per cent of youth have lost jobs and that all job training has stopped. Due to COVID-19, unemployment has risen by 17.7 per cent as of June, leaving 7.3 million Filipinos jobless. 

Still, incoming high school student John Vincent Balucos, 17, worries how online classes will be possible. One of five siblings living together in a one-room nipa hut in Dumanjug, Cebu, Balucos says they rarely have a stable WiFi connection. 

In preparation, Balucos purchased additional mobile data to enroll online and, hopefully, keep up with all of his classes. But Balucos says that many students will have to drop out to help their families survive, adding that his older brother may leave school for a construction job.

“I think that children who are supposed to study will be focused on finding jobs instead. As a student who tries and continues to balance education and part-time, sometimes it’s borderline impossible,” adds Dacay.

“I’m already a college student and still struggling to make ends meet while balancing school and work, I can’t imagine what others will go through just to send their students to school during a pandemic.”

An uncertain future 

Cañedo, the writer and designer, says Covid created the problem, but the government has only added to the stress and confusion. “Everybody’s pretty much clueless about what will happen right now so communication could definitely be better,” says Cañedo.

Cañedo’s local government has also proposed that schools run classes via radio, which drew more confusion and questions: “Does that mean one class for all students in the city in the same grade? Hiring one teacher per subject to go on air? If so, what will happen to other teachers then?”

She also worries about how families will manage schoolwork at home on top of their jobs and everyday responsibilities. “Parents can’t possibly know all the answers [to help guide their children’s studies]. So what will we do then?” Cañedo worries. “There’s really just no clear path yet, and with the new amendment [Republic Act No. 11480 enables the president to change school schedules during a state of emergency], it makes it more unclear.” 

Diaz, the veteran teacher, agrees, expressing concern about how remote education will work for young children: 

“How do we teach sounds and reading? And how will mothers be able to help students at home?” she asks. “It’s definitely different [from before], but we have hope things will become more manageable. We’ve just got to remain positive.”