The pandemic would have given the government a chance to use technology to reboot the country’s education system, but it highlighted serious problems instead, including slow internet connectivity. — PHILIPPINE STAR/MICHAEL VARCAS

By Charmaine A. Tadalan, Reporter

JIRO A. NOBLE, 14, has been trying to learn Algebra on his own since classes started in October amid a coronavirus pandemic.

The Grade 9 student from Batangas National High School finds self-learning convenient in the absence of classroom noise and other distractions. But he finds it difficult to understand complex Math lessons without a teacher.

“I need a teacher because it takes me days to understand a lesson,” he said in Filipino by telephone.

BW Bullseye 2020-focusJiro’s father works as a driver, while his mom is a housewife. He has seven siblings, two of whom are also studying online. One is in senior high school, while the other has just started college and he would tap them whenever he needs help.

The COVID-19 crisis has forced school closures in almost 200 countries, disrupting the learning process of more than 1.7 billion children, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Most governments including the Philippines were forced to adopt distance-learning solutions to ensure education continuity, and much of the debate focuses on how much students have learned (or missed) during school closures.

“While this potential learning loss may only be temporary, other elements that happen in the absence of traditional schooling, such as the curbing of educational aspirations or the disengagement from the school system, will have a long-term impact on students’ outcomes,” the OECD said in a report last year.

“This ‘hysteresis’ effect in education requires specific attention,” it said, citing the need to bring disengaged students back to school and mitigate student disengagement in case of future lockdowns.

In the Philippines, the coronavirus forced 2.6 million kids out of school as their parents lost their jobs or became underemployed. Many had to transfer to public schools where tuition is free. The enrollment rate fell by a tenth from a year earlier to 24.6 million.

The pandemic worsened the quality of Philippine education system that was already problematic before the global health crisis set in, according to youth group Samahan ng Progresibong Kabataan.

Local schools have had issues on accessibility especially for the poor, and the lack of infrastructure complicates it.

“Problems in education reflect bigger problems in society — labor, infrastructure, economic and social development, and healthcare, group spokesman John Lazaro said by telephone.

The pandemic would have given the government a chance to use technology to reboot the country’s education system, but it highlighted serious problems instead, including slow internet connectivity.

Mr. Lazaro said many parents are incapable of teaching their kids complex lessons, and majority of families don’t have laptops and other gadgets needed to make the online learning experience easier.

A government plan to improve the quality of education was stalled because of the crisis, he pointed out.

Mr. Lazaro’s group had been pushing for an academic freeze — classes shouldn’t start until COVID-19 vaccines arrive — arguing that the Department of Education (DepEd) should have planned the steps better under the so-called “new normal” instead.

He admits the freeze is a “Band-Aid solution” — it doesn’t really get to the bottom of the problem.

“It’s an emergency measure meant for education agencies to sit down and really think about the problem at hand rather than trying to rush through plans that don’t work, in favor of stakeholders,” he said.

Otherwise, the government should at least subsidize expenses related to distance learning, Mr. Lazaro said.

DepEd had planned to resume face-to-face classes in low-risk areas this month, but President Rodrigo R. Duterte recalled it given the risk from a new coronavirus strain first detected in the United Kingdom. At least 17 people in the Philippines have tested positive for the more contagious variant.

Senator Sherwin T. Gatchalian, who heads the Basic Education Committee, said an academic freeze would be regressive.

“Even though there are a lot of questions on absorption, there is learning happening in their homes as opposed to completely zero,” he said in a phone interview. “If we don’t implement distance learning, regression will happen.”

“When regression happens, there will be massive dropouts and that will be a much greater, long-term concern,” he pointed out.

Mr. Gatchalian said the education sector had been in a “very deep crisis” even before the pandemic.

The Philippines ranked lowest out of 79 countries in the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment in 2018.

Filipino students posted a mean score of 340 in Reading, 357 in Science and 353 in Mathematics, much lower than the average scores of 487 in Reading and 489 each in Science and Math.

The country also ranked last out of 58 countries after scoring 297 and 249 in Grade 4 Math and Science respectively, in the 2019 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement.

Fifth-grade Filipino students also lagged behind students in five other Southeast Asian countries, in Reading, Writing and Math in the 2019 Southeast Asia Primary Learning Metrics.

Mr. Gatchalian said the government should address quality issues now because these will have a lasting impact.

“The health crisis is a short-term crisis,” he said. “Eventually this will pass. We will get our vaccines but the problems in education now will have long-term effects.”

“Dropouts, teenage pregnancies, quality and performance issues will eventually affect the quality of jobs, innovation and our country’s competitiveness,” he added.

Jerome T. Buenviaje, dean of the University of the Philippines College of Education, said education is a major indicator of a country’s progress.

Allotting a bigger budget for the sector, which got the biggest share of P708 billion in this year’s P4.5-trilion national budget will also boost the economy in the long term.

“Learning should continue despite the crisis,” Mr. Buenviaje said. “These modalities may not be the most effective but these are mitigating measures to reduce learning gaps and other impacts after the pandemic.”

He said schools should plug learning gaps caused by the crisis as soon as physical classes resume.

Jiro, the Grade 9 student, looks forward to seeing his classmates in school soon. “There are times when I don’t understand the modules because I’m not used to learning on my own. I need a teacher.”