Old school in the new normal
We are seeing the greatest crisis in education faced by the country since World War II, when classes were disrupted for three years because of the Japanese Occupation.
The other day, the Department of Education (DepEd) finally accepted reality and formally adopted the policy President Duterte had laid down a couple of weeks ago during one of his televised rambles. He simply decreed that so long as a COVID-19 vaccine didn’t exist, there would be no classes. It seems that for a couple of weeks, officials were hoping they could change the President’s mind.
On the part of public educators, there was the frank worry that DepEd had neither the means, in terms of infrastructure and other equipment, nor the training among teachers, to conduct some sort of national distance learning effort. Private schools, for their part, faced a crisis in relevance: For parents with means, if home learning is the temporary path forward for the foreseeable future, it would seem more reasonable to hire private tutors or engage in home schooling.
A South African futurist named Graeme Codrington has long been a consultant on “future-proofing” organizations and companies; in the era of COVID-19 he gained wide exposure on YouTube. On March 9, he came out with a YouTube piece titled “Don’t panic. Be prepared. Have the right conversations now,” followed on April 23 by another short YouTube piece titled “What ‘Back to School’ will look like — and how the community can support parents and students,” and then, “Corona Schooling — get your priorities right,” on April 30, all of which made for fascinating watching. His message basically said the 2020 school year would be totally disrupted, and he expected that 2021 would be most likely disrupted, too. School would not be able to resume in the old ways; and among other immediate dilemmas, he said, there’s the problem of parents who now have to home-school their children to one extent or another. The dilemma being, if the parents are to school their kids, it takes time and resources, disrupting work; and if their work is disrupted, either parents have to sacrifice the education of their children, or sacrifice work.
Codrington’s immediate advice was for parents to realize that their immediate and most urgent task is their own well-being. Parents can’t get too heroic, because their physical and mental health may not stand the strain; in which case, everyone, including the kids, suffer. Remember, he said, kids are going to face a year, not just weeks, of disruption; it’s more urgent to hold the family together and address something adults might overlook—kids are confused and frightened over what’s going on. As for educators, he issued a warning: Home schooling or distance learning is very different from teaching in the classroom. Both educators and parents are now scrambling to cope with this difference, and this stress can be moderated by adjusting our expectations.
Some local executives have launched initiatives to purchase tablets and laptops in bulk, for distribution to children in their city’s public schools. What is left unsaid by these encouraging news items is the large number of non-urban areas in which neither gadgets nor internet structure could possibly be provided to kids. What is also left unsaid is how long it takes for government to get going: By the time plans, materials, and divisions of labor are laid out, the health emergency may have passed.
In recent days, links to materials in the DepEd Commons — its digital repository of teaching materials — has been circulating in chat apps. For parents with the means, both in time and resources (such as printers, ink, and lots of paper), this is a godsend. Other educational institutions, having finally obtained some sort of clarity from the government, have formally announced that no face-to-face classes will be held until a vaccine exists. But institutions that also provide higher learning have made tentative announcements for the November term and onward.
Which brings up other concerns: If parents are anxious about exposing their kids to the virus (and so, even if schools had opened, many parents might have opted out of sending their kids to classes anyway), the fact is many educators are at risk, too. Not all are young; and without even being middle-aged, factors such as hypertension, diabetes, smoking, etc., make many educators vulnerable. So it would make more sense for higher education to shift to online learning for the foreseeable future, too.
There are educators hard at work on the basis of an insight Codrington had independently shared: With home schooling and distance education fundamentally different from school learning, old standards can’t be made to apply. The Christian Brothers of La Salle have put forward one path; other educators such as the Dominicans of Letran are figuring out others. But they are all trying to fit the square peg of distance learning into the round hole of DepEd’s (and ultimately, the Commission on Higher Education’s) requirements. A wider national conversation is urgently needed.