MANILA. July 31 (The Straits Times/ANN): Millions of Filipino students have spent the past year cooped up at home, learning mostly through their computers and phones, or through printed lessons their parents pick up from the school.
Some 9,000 schools in the country have been shut since March last year as the government pushed for remote learning.
By most accounts, that experiment has failed.
"Honestly, we just let them all pass, even though most of them hardly learnt anything," said Jericho Santiago, a teacher at the General Flaviano Yengko Senior High School in Imus town, Cavite province, south of Manila.
Hobbled by a lack of resources and a creaky digital infrastructure, the Philippines is just not ready for remote learning.
At least two million students dropped out last year, although the vast majority or some 23 million did manage to squeak by.
"We just wanted to save this cohort," said Joji Fernando, a principal at the San Roque National High School in Navotas, one of 16 cities that make up Metro Manila.
"But the problem with that and with looking for ways and means to respond to the pandemic was that we had to shave our curriculum... We had to reduce the most essential learning competencies."
A new school year is set to start in September and President Rodrigo Duterte remains opposed to in-person classes, not till at least half the population is vaccinated. That may not happen till 2023.
This will mean that the "permanent scarring" to school-going children and teenagers, as Mr Duterte's own economic managers described it, will go on for one more cycle.
Eight-year-old Charly Sacramento, who is in Grade 3, is among those who do not mind studying at home. "I don't have to wake up early, and my classroom is just in my bedroom. I can watch YouTube between breaks," she said.
Still, she would rather go back to school. "I miss playing with my friends... While we wait for our teacher, we get to play. We talk, and we tell stories," she said.
In many poor districts, teachers have had to comb through shanties and farms to check on students who are struggling or already dropping out of class without a word.
These students have to rely on printed lessons which their parents pick up from their schools.
"If we don't hear from them for five weeks, then we really have to go to them and ask them what's wrong," said Ms Fernando.
But it is never easy for teachers who often have a class of more than 40 students.
"Usually, only 20 of them would stay on. The rest would just not show up. You'll have to look for them one by one," said Fernando.
Those with a cellphone and can afford to buy mobile data can interact with their teachers via Facebook Messenger. But there is only so much that one can teach using just texts and emojis.
"How can you teach a student to weld without them actually holding a welder?" said Fernando.
Many teachers have gone the extra mile by making instructional videos on YouTube and trying as much as they could to hold online classes. But students quickly ran out of data on their devices.
"They log in with data worth 50 pesos (S$1.34). Normally, that'll be good enough for a week. But online classes require videos. By the time they get to their third class of the day, they've already used up their load," said Fernando.
Santiago said that, as the school year wound down, he only had seven students left attending his online classes.
Activists are concerned that with two years of non-learning, Filipino students may fall even further behind those in other nations. In mathematics, for example, a World Bank report showed one in four Grade 5 pupils had the skills of someone in Grade 2 or 3.
But Ms Fernando, the school principal, is hoping that, given lessons learned from the past year, there will be improvements in the new academic year this time around,and schools can recover some lost ground.
Her school, for instance, will be distributing hundreds of tablets to students, so no one would have to rely on printed lessons, or miss out on instructions because they could notcontact their teachers or log on to the Internet.
It is not enough, but it's still something.
"History will judge how well we prepared this cohort," said Fernando. - The Straits Times/ANN