"At best, such optimism might be seen as misplaced; at worst, it’s downright delusional."
It was breathtaking to listen to Education Secretary Leonor Briones describe the last school year as a victory.
In her welcome speech on the first day of the school year, Briones said this month’s opening of classes, the second in the time of COVID-19, was “a celebration of last school year’s success.”
She based this assessment on tentative graduation figures that showed 98.13 percent of Grade 6 learners made it and that 96.9 percent of Grade 10 learners completed their studies.
What the secretary did not mention was the quality of the education that these graduates received in a year marked by the many problems associated with distance learning—including the inequitable distribution of learning resources such as computers, tablets and internet access that all students and teachers alike needed.
Ironically, the secretary’s victory lap comes amid the stark realization that the Philippines is only one of two countries in the entire world (Venezuela being the other) where schools have remained shuttered over COVID-19 fears.
The President, it seems, has been reluctant to find ways to have schools reopen safely, and opted for the “safer” approach to ban face-to-face classes altogether until enough people have been vaccinated.
This approach flies in the face of the recommendation from the the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), which urged governments worldwide to start a phased reopening of schools as soon as possible, saying prolonged school closures have an adverse impact on learners.
Younger children have been especially hurt by school closures, says Isy Faingold, UNICEF’s education chief in the Philippines, 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 says.
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,” says 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.”
Even before Briones’s “victory,” the country’s system of education was clearly proving inadequate.
Data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development showed 15-year-olds in the Philippines were at or near the bottom in reading, mathematics and science.
The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) 2019 and Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2018 showed the Philippines scored the lowest among 58 countries.
In the meantime, enrollments are down, falling to 26.9 million in the 2020 school year, and 24.6 million as classes opened this week.
It takes a true optimist to see the “victory” in all this or even a cause for celebration. At best, such optimism might be seen as misplaced; at worst, it’s downright delusional.