Teachers wearing face mask and face shield behind plastic barriers to prevent the spread of the coronavirus use computers during online classes at the Senator Renato "Companero" Cayetano (SRCC) Memorial Science and Technology High School in Taguig city, P

Remote learning in the Philippines has no end in sight

The Philippines is one of several countries that have kept students out of the classroom the longest since the start of the pandemic. Lacking critical resources to sustain virtual learning, the situation leaves teachers, students and parents across Metro Manila exhausted and frustrated. 

The World

Teachers wearing face mask and face shield behind plastic barriers to prevent the spread of the coronavirus use computers during online classes at Senator Renato "Companero" Cayetano (SRCC) Memorial Science and Technology High School in Taguig city, Philippines, Oct. 19, 2020. 

Aaron Favila/AP

Sisters Eve Bandola and Enzel Bandola miss going to school. They’ve been learning remotely ever since March 2020, when the Philippines shuttered schools in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Eve Bandola said she especially misses her friends and teachers. 

Their father Avel Bandola said that when they first heard about the remote learning plan two years ago, teachers told them it would be temporary and that face-to-face classes would eventually resume. 

“If there’s lots of children online they tend to make noises and can’t get into focus,” said the 41-year-old who works as a messenger in Marikina City, just outside Manila, the capital. 

But for families in the Philippines, distance learning has no end in sight, unlike in countries throughout North America and Europe that have started to send students back to the classroom. Lacking critical resources to sustain virtual learning, teachers, students and parents across Metro Manila are exhausted and frustrated.

Related: Uganda's schools reopen, ending world's longest lockdown

Abigin Bandola and Avel Bandola's daughters both attend school online, due to COVID-19 protocols in the Philippines.

Abigin Bandola and Avel Bandola's daughters both attend school online due to COVID-19 protocols in the Philippines. 

Credit:

Ashley Westerman/The World

This week, students in the capital region returned to remote learning after being off all last week for a “health break.” The Philippines Department of Education called for the pause on Jan. 14 amid rising COVID-19 cases among teachers throughout Metro Manila. 

In November 2021, after 20 months of distance learning, a pilot program was launched that allowed 100 schools across the nation to try in-person classes. But because of the rise in cases linked to the omicron variant, schools in Metro Manila suspended the program. 

Related: India postpones in-school learning as omicron surges 

Eve Bandola and Ensel Bandola both attend school virtually since the start of the pandemic in March 2020.

Eve Bandola and Ensel Bandola both attend school virtually since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. 

Credit:

Ashley Westerman/The World

Meanwhile, primary schools in five provinces surrounding the region will remain closed through the end of January. 

The Philippines remains near the top of the list of countries that have kept students out of the classroom the longest since the start of the pandemic. And it has mostly remained that way, leaving some groups like the UN’s children agency, UNICEF, to worry about a “lost generation.”

The Bandola sisters' parents said they try to stay positive and encouraging when it comes to helping their two daughters do their lessons from home, but the current process is difficult. 

The girls learn through the “module method,” where parents pick up a lesson booklet — or module — from the school, and then students go through the lessons with their teachers online, from home, filling out the booklets along the way. Later, the parents deliver the booklets back to the teachers at the school for grading. 

Avel Bandola said the lesson plans are often unclear and the booklets sometimes have errors. He worries that his daughters aren’t picking up everything they need to learn through this learning method. Their mother, Abigin Bandola, worries that her daughters are losing important socialization skills, but she said she has no choice but to keep doing all they can to keep her girls’ lessons on track. 

She doesn’t want her daughters to return to school until the Philippines has reached “zero-COVID” status. 

Related: Uruguay's virtual education was ahead of the curve when the pandemic hit

Module learning booklets are sent home with students who then go through the lessons with teachers online.

Module learning booklets are sent home with students who then go through the lessons with teachers online. 

Credit:

Ashley Westerman/The World

Pleading with government

Education activists say the government is not addressing the needs of students or teachers when it comes to virtual learning or a plan to return to the classroom. 

“We will feel more safe if the government will allocate a specific budget for the health and wellness aspect of teachers."

Rosanilla Constad, deputy secretary, Alliance of Concerned Teachers, Philippines

“We will feel more safe if the government will allocate a specific budget for the health and wellness aspect of teachers,” said Rosanilla Constad, the deputy secretary of the Alliance of Concerned Teachers. 

ATC is the largest union for public school teachers in the Philippines with some 180,000 members.

Constad, a special education teacher at a high school in Butuan province, said her group believes a specific COVID-19 budget could do everything from helping teachers obtain the proper technology to supporting educators if they contract the coronavirus. It would also give teachers and educators a say when it comes to making decisions about whether to return to in-person classes, she said. 

Without more money, Constad noted, students will continue to stay out of the classroom. 

The Department of Education did not respond to The World’s request for comment for this story.

Persistent problems 

Since the Philippines transitioned to mostly remote learning, the agency has worked to provide some laptops and SIM cards, but it’s just not enough, activists say. 

Nearly two years on, educators say many problems faced early on in the pandemic remain, including a lack of proper technology for students to complete their lessons. 

“Not all students are capable of having gadgets…such as drawing tablets, headsets with noise-cancelling features, web cameras, laptops. ... I should say it would be a great help if the government can provide us with those tools.”

James Morris Jr., assistant principal, Nuestra Señora de Guia Academy, Marikina City, Philippines

“Not all students are capable of having gadgets ... such as drawing tablets, headsets with noise-canceling features, web cameras, laptops,” said James Morris Jr., the assistant principal at Nuestra Señora de Guia Academy, a private high school in Marikina City. “I should say it would be a great help if the government can provide us with those tools.”

Out of a population of over 109 million people, nearly 23% of Filipinos live below the poverty line, according to government data released in 2021. A nationwide survey conducted last year by the Social Weather Stations also revealed that some 42% of students did not use any distance learning device for school. 

Morris also teaches math and, like many teachers, said he doesn’t feel as connected to his students because getting feedback is difficult and many students are trying to learn in difficult home environments. 

To make distance learning even more challenging, the internet in the Philippines is unreliable, expensive and slow — the slowest in all of Southeast Asia. 

Morris said it costs families money to upgrade their internet so their children can do their lessons. Troubleshooting connectivity problems waste valuable teaching time. 

Many teachers have had to use their own money to obtain the resources they need, like tech training and gadgets. 

“I was forced to buy this tablet with a stylus with a pen, so I could easily teach math — particularly problem solving — since I’m doing algebra and graphing,” Morris said. “So, I really needed that tool for me to be able to teach math.”

Even as an administrator, Morris said he doesn’t know when it will be possible to bring students back into the classroom. 

“We really don’t know yet what is going to happen next,” he said.

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