"With an overburdened and underfunded government school system, implementing the Learning Continuity Plan is easier said than done."
Both mainstream and social media are abuzz with affirming and opposing views on the opening of classes for the coming school year. The Department of Education has already officially announced that classes will open on August 24, this year, with the proviso that classes may be conducted physically or virtually, depending on the COVID-19 situation by then. In fact, last week, President Rodrigo Roa Duterte himself expressed his disagreement over the scheduled opening of classes, at least not until a COVID-19 vaccine is available. Malacañang, however, was quick to explain that the President’s differing opinion simply referred to the resumption of face-to-face classes.
It is clear that DepEd’s decision to open the school year by August was not taken lightly. The Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) on Emerging Infectious Diseases had earlier recommended postponing the opening of classes to September, but DepEd officials explained that they were bound by the provisions of Republic Act 7977, which requires that the “school year shall start on the first Monday of June but not later than the last day of August.” DepEd officials have already stated firmly that education must continue even in this time of pandemic and rightly so, they have committed to double their efforts to address the adjustments and challenges brought about by this “new normal.”
With the upcoming opening of classes in sight, the DepEd has prepared a Learning Continuity Plan that would allow different learning modalities that are compliant with existing quarantine protocols. For example, in areas under community quarantine, no face-to-face classes will be allowed, and learning will instead be conducted through home school or distance learning using self-study modules, broadcast media and online tools. On the other hand, in areas not under any quarantine measures, face-to-face classes may resume, provided that physical distancing and minimum health standards are observed. The Learning Continuity Plan also allows schools to adopt blended learning that would combine face-to-face classes with distance-learning modalities.
But with an overburdened and underfunded government school system, implementing the Learning Continuity Plan is easier said than done. DepEd, for example, is mulling limiting classroom size to not more than 20 students. But public elementary schools in the Philippines are already the most crowded in Asia, with an average class size of 43 students to a classroom. Setting a cap on class size would mean expanding the shifting policy already being implemented in several schools in Metro Manila. Plans are also under way for a possible staggered school schedule, where students would have to study at home on some days. The resulting additional classes, however, would mean more work for our already overworked teachers, possibly without extra compensation.
DepEd is apologetic enough to admit that the Learning Continuity Plan is far from perfect, considering that the current public health emergency presents several “unknowns and imponderables.” Operational challenges are also to be expected in the process of implementing the plan, despite best efforts to anticipate these problems.
There is no question that what the educational system requires at the moment is the full support from all education stakeholders. With the recent approval at the House of Representatives of House Bill 1587, which institutionalizes and enhances the role of Parent-Teacher and Community Associations (PTCA), a stronger partnership between parents, teachers and the community can go a long way in creating tailored solutions and tapping local resources to ensure that learning continues despite exigencies.
Congress, however, needs to double its efforts to approve pending proposed legislation that could be helpful to DepEd in this time of “new normal.” An important component of DepEd’s Learning Continuity Plan is the increased use of alternative learning modalities, of which one of its best practices is the implementation of the Alternative Learning System. The ALS has been found to be effective in ensuring that out-of-school children are not denied the opportunity to complete their studies at par with formal learning outcomes.
Tingog Party-List, through Rep. Yedda Marie K. Romualdez, has long championed ALS as “the other lung of the Philippine educational system” and consistently pushed for the passage of House Bill 1586, the proposed Alternative Learning Act. Sadly, the ALS bill has been long pending at the House Committee on Basic Education and Culture. The immediate passage of the ALS Bill will provide DepEd with the necessary human and material resource to improve its alternative learning capability, including distance learning modalities. The Senate has already passed its version, and hopefully, the lower chamber will follow suit, by expediting the passage of the House version.
While the House of Representatives has also approved several measures appertaining to the post-COVID-19 recovery, what is found wanting is the passage of a proposed Learning Continuity Act, that will fund and match the implementation of DepEd’s Learning Continuity Plan. Ensuring that learning continues under this “new normal” would definitely require additional funds and resources, including the hiring of more teachers to address the expansion of more class shifts and the proposed cap on class size. Furthermore, a Learning Continuity Act would empower the Secretary of Education to accordingly adjust the date for the opening of classes and even the number of days in the school calendar, in deference not only to public health emergencies but even during times of disasters and calamities. It will also ensure that blended learning becomes a ready standby option for both government and private schools, in order to ensure the unhampered access to basic education without compromising the quality of learning.
Finally, continuity of learning also means ensuring the institutional stability of our private school system. Unlike public schools that are receiving government support, private schools are already struggling with the challenges brought about by the postponement of the opening of the school year, the expected drop in enrollment income and the added cost that comes with adjusting to the “new normal”.
The Constitution recognizes the complementarity of both public and private schools, and in times of emergencies such as now, it is important that such partnership should mean more than lip service. Government assistance for private schools should go beyond just extending scholarships and subsidies for students and teachers, but also provide private school stakeholders with a strong platform for institutional growth and a responsive partnership mechanism with the government, significantly expanding the capability of private schools to provide durable learning solutions especially to underserved communities.
Strengthening the role of private education in the Philippines is what House Bill 6349 intends to achieve by creating the Partnership in Private Education Board and appropriating the Partnership Fund for Private Education. Authored by House Majority Leader Ferdinand Martin G. Romualdez and Rep. Yedda Marie K. Romualdez, the bill hopes to increase existing government assistance for private education, but also to also strengthen the coordination, collaboration and engagement between the government and private schools.
Admittedly, our country is treading on unfamiliar ground, and it is absolutely necessary for the government and other partners to consider solutions “outside the box”. While the safety and health of the more than 27 million students cannot be compromised, nor should their learning be delayed. It will be, as DepEd describes it, “a grueling transition” – but with the support and contribution of all education stakeholders, it is definitely no mission impossible.