Back to school?

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The country’s public school system is scheduled to reopen in a couple of days and based on the silence surrounding this issue, it looks like, despite the delay, neither national nor local governments are ready for schools to open.

We would know if they were ready by now because they would’ve made all sorts of noises. However, with almost no noises from our usually bombastic officials who love to trumpet everything “positive” during these utterly depressing times, we can probably safely assume that not much has happened in terms of preparation between the time the schoolyear opening was postponed and now.

As Filipino schoolchildren and their parents brace themselves for more of the epic failures that have been plaguing our country for what already feels like a lifetime, only those who are privileged to have access to the internet and the digital devices necessary for distance learning can face the upcoming schoolyear with relative confidence. Those who are not as privileged will have to find the ways and means to catch up.

Unfortunately for the poor Filipino, there is no DIY solution for a stable internet connection and the requisite internet-connected device. The poor farmer who was able to make a mandatory face shield with banana leaves cannot fashion a tablet or laptop out of bamboo or nipa and cannot ask his local surhuano to summon the internet spirits so his kids can continue schooling. This is a case where even the famed Filipino resiliency could finally meet its match.

Additionally, our island is now a bonafide COVID-19 hotspot, thanks to the post-ECQ efforts of our national government, so we’ll have to assume classes cannot be held inside classrooms, at least for the next six months, or until the magical vaccine appears.

Given the situation, our public education system has a few options.

One would be to give out transistor radios and turn AM radio into the nation’s school. While it may be a 1960’s era solution, it is the cheapest and easiest way to deploy education to the masses. If this is the way, perhaps we can have our school teachers dress in 60’s style uniforms to complete the look.

The next option is TV. Bigger and costing more, TV sets are more difficult to give away. Not only that, our government that prioritized shutting down one of the biggest TV networks in the country at the height of a pandemic, has inavertedly lost the opportunity to leverage that neutralized network in this year’s non-traditional public education effort. However, if DepEd has managed to source enough educational material, give away enough TV’s, and find a wide-reaching network to broadcast on, they would’ve announced it by now and that is why I don’t think we can bank on this particular solution at this point.

The most modern and relevant delivery system for public education, especially in urban and semi-urban areas, would be the internet. If the teachers have been receiving the necessary training and equipment over the last 6 months, the materials and method of delivery should be ready. If we give our government that hasn’t been very proactive the benefit of the doubt, the next hurdle would be empowering the millions-strong new-normal student body with the digital devices and reliable access to the internet.

There have been no news or self-serving press releases regarding the distribution of laptops or tablets, so unless there is a sudden delivery of educational equipment in the next few days, it looks like students and parents are, as usual, on their own.

Even if LGUs can purchase devices for its learners, the quantities will probably never be enough. What can be done would be for such devices to be installed in schools so schoolkids without devices can be connected to their classes. As long as they are not used as quarantine facilities, the classrooms are already there and they should be able to be retrofitted to allow physically distant computer stations to be installed for students. If schools are not available or for communities that are too distant from schools, mobile learning stations can be fabricated and deployed. Converted 20-foot container vans or buses/trucks can be outfitted with physically-distanced workstations and equipped with reasonably quick internet connections and then deployed in areas that need them most. If efforts had begun earlier, this could be a public-private effort. As long as proper sanitation protocols are established, students can use the facilities in shifts in order to maximize the equipment. Contact tracing should be a requirement too.

However because our government seems to prefer holding its cards close to its chest, or is incapable of generating a plan, nobody seems to know what the coming schoolyear will look like so no preparations or partnerships were made. Typical of our government’s headless chicken response to anything pandemic-related, where surprise announcements in the middle of the night have become the norm and the people are simply expected to adjust accordingly.

SY 2020 will start in a few days. With the future of millions of Filipino school children at stake, all we can do is wait and see if government is ready or if we will be treated to the usual mediocre and half-baked response, followed by the same old excuses.
Best of luck to all the students and parents of the Philippines.*

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