Blended learning, Year 2

As of last Saturday, the Online Kopyahan site on Facebook had been taken down.

This was after the Department of Education sought the help of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to go after those behind the site that posted answers to test questions in DepEd learning modules covering a wide range of subjects.

The site had 678,200 members when its existence was reported on mainstream media and drew the attention of DepEd. It should ask the NBI to press ahead with the probe.

Before the site was taken down, there were some comments that the answers provided were wrong. Right or wrong, those who set up the site should be found and held accountable.

Education in the time of COVID is challenging enough. Those who try to sabotage the effort should be stopped, or else the problem will keep recurring while blended learning is in place. Let’s see if the NBI cybercrime sleuths are up to the job.

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A week into Year 2 of blended learning, we were told that enrollment has slightly exceeded last year’s 27 million in the public school system. Late enrollment has been allowed until the end of the month.

Education Secretary Leonor Briones has declared the school opening a “celebration of victories and successes.”

“We opened classes last year. We successfully ended them. Now we are opening another school year. Isn’t that success worthy of celebration?” she asked.

Briones, who faced us on One News’ “The Chiefs” on the first day of classes last week, reiterated that the deterioration of Philippine education began decades before her watch, and what we saw pre-pandemic was the result of that long period of under-investment in education.

It has yet to be clarified if this school year’s higher enrollment is due to additional transfers from private institutions to public schools where tuition is free and, in some areas, computers are also provided for free.

Last year, several small private schools were forced to shut down after seeing many of their students transfer to public schools because of the financial difficulties arising from the pandemic in many families.

Year 2 of blended learning may be a victory for DepEd. But others see the failure to resume in-person classes as one of the indications of the weakness of the pandemic response.

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As of last Aug. 25, the United Nations Children’s Fund’s Philippine representative, Oyunsaikhan Dendevnorov, observed: “In 2020, schools globally were fully closed for an average of 79 teaching days, while the Philippines has been closed for more than a year, forcing students to enroll in distance learning modalities. The associated consequences of school closures – learning loss, mental distress, missed vaccinations, and heightened risk of drop out, child labor, and child marriage – will be felt by many children, especially the youngest learners in critical development stages.”

She noted that the Philippines was one of just five countries that have not started in-person classes since the pandemic began. We’re told that the five countries are now down to just two.

UNICEF has been pushing for a phased reopening of schools, with COVID safety protocols in place, beginning in low-risk areas.

DepEd has identified 120 public and private schools for the pilot resumption of face-to-face classes. But the pilot is being held back by the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant, which is infecting even children, plus the limited supply of COVID vaccines even for adults.

According to global trackers, as of last Saturday, the Philippines ranked 18th among countries in the number of COVID infections, and 21st in terms of deaths, with 36,583. Per capita, we’re lower down the list, but that’s still a lot of fatalities. And President Duterte has said he doesn’t want more deaths pinned on him.

In the United States, which has one of the highest COVID cases and death rates despite the widespread availability of free vaccines, but where there is also a strong anti-vax and anti-mask sentiment, some schools are suspending in-person classes as infections spike.

UNICEF is worried particularly about first graders, who are losing what the agency considers “a landmark moment in a child’s life” – the first day of school, in an actual classroom, with other students.

“Your first day of school is a day of hope and possibility – a day for getting off to a good start. But not all children are getting off to a good start. Some children are not even starting at all,” UNICEF executive director Henrietta Fore declared.

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The business community would also welcome the resumption of in-person classes, which can revive many enterprises that thrive on school operations, from mass transportation to school and office supplies as well as food establishments.

With Delta on a rampage and increasing reports of pediatric infections, however, the government isn’t taking chances and is maintaining restrictions on minors.

Blended learning has been particularly difficult for poor families. This learning mode has widened the education gap between the haves and have-nots. Children from wealthy families, who have been playing with gadgets even before kiddie school, switched almost seamlessly to distance learning, although they surely also miss the company of friends in school. Many have their own rooms converted into their private classrooms, and a number of them could be more tech-savvy than some teachers.

Obviously, this is not the case with poor families. Even with gadget assistance from local governments or private donors, their cramped homes are hardly conducive to learning. The government bans karaoke during school hours. Still, children in such households must contend with ordinary noises from the neighborhood and right at home while they try to focus on online lessons. Parents must work, and even those with time to spare may lack the competencies needed to assist their children in the learning process.

Despite such difficulties, I also know parents from low-income families who worry about sending their children back to school at this time, with Delta untamed.

The last thing the Duterte administration needs is the sight of parents wailing over children debilitated or who have succumbed to COVID.

Teachers are unhappy as well, over what they describe as the inadequate government support for their requirements in blended learning.

There is general agreement that the sooner in-person learning can resume, the better all around.

But there is also agreement that with high COVID cases, school kids must be vaccinated first. And now there is an increasing likelihood that adults will need booster shots.

We can’t contain Delta, and we can’t vaccinate enough. So we’re stuck with blended learning.