School closures leave scars

A staff member conducts a fogging operation against the rise of dengue fever at an elementary school in Manila on August 12, 2022, ahead of the schools' reopening on August 22. (Photo by JAM STA ROSA/ AFP)

On Aug 22, schools in the Philippines will finally reopen their doors to students after two and a half years – one of the longest pandemic-induced school closures in the world.

As well as devastating the individual prospects of countless children, the extended hiatus is threatening to leave long-term scars on an economy historically reliant on sending high-skilled workers abroad.

Protracted school closures worsen basic literacy standards and will likely reduce the productivity and earnings of children once they enter the workforce, the World Bank warned in a recent report.

About 10% of Filipinos work abroad and the economy is dependent on remittances sent back by its overseas nurses, teachers and engineers, among other workers.

A steady flow of graduates is also essential to the country’s push to establish itself as an outsourcing centre for international corporations and to increasing the number of decent jobs closer to home. “The impact is huge,” the country’s economic planning chief Arsenio Balisacan said in an interview.

“The quality of graduates we produce affects the competitiveness of our labour force.” While protracted school closures have bedeviled many countries – particularly poorer ones – the problem is particularly acute in the Philippines, where the shutdown has been one of the longest in the world according to data from the United Nations Children’s Fund. Even now, full in-person teaching isn’t planned until November.

One reason for the tardiness in reopening is the country’s social structure. Households are mostly composed of extended families, so many children live with grandparents who are vulnerable to the virus due to old age, or with other kin who may have underlying health issues.

Exacerbating fears of the virus are long-standing logistical issues in poorly funded schools including overcrowding. Prior to the virus, classes in public schools of more than 60 students were common, necessitating textbook sharing and preventing any meaningful social distancing.

So while parents are dismayed at their children’s lack of progress, fear of the virus has kept criticism of the government in check. Cristina Martinez, a 31-year-old vegetable seller in the coastal town of Hagonoy and mother of four children, says her 10-year-old “can barely read sentences”, particularly in English, the language used in science and math textbooks.

“The situation is hard for us, but I think there’s not much we can do,” she said. Compensating for two years of inadequate learning requires a programme that includes make-up classes for younger pupils and training for college students to prevent irreversible human capital losses, Balisacan said.

Success is crucial if the next generation of Filipinos are to access good quality jobs – and new president Ferdinand Marcos Jr is to keep his pledge to bring the poverty rate to 9% by the end of his term in 2028 from 23.7% as of the first half of last year. — Bloomberg

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