May 2, 2023 (3:23 PM)

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LIGTAS NA BALIK-ESKWELA. Every student’s long-awaited wish is a safe return to campus. However, challenges still remain for students as they navigate the transition back to in-person classes amidst the ongoing pandemic and socioeconomic crisis.

Photo by Yvonne Baco

To a few students, the long journey back to the classrooms culminated with a heart-pounding drumbeat and exhilarating school chants. To some, it may simply be just sitting still in front of a laptop and being marooned inside the confines of their homes. Again.  

Such was the case on September 5, 2022, when the Iskolars ng Bayan finally breathed life anew into the desolate two-year campus of UP Mindanao. Despite the limited face-to-face setup, the halls teemed with freshmen and upperclassmen eager to experience the typical first-day vibe on campus—something that Iskos had been deprived of for quite some time.

Nowhere near the first-day festivities on campus, however, was Zee Lobrino, a third-year BS Food Technology student, who was 300 kilometers away from Butuan City on that day. She began her first day the way she usually has for the past two years: she woke up to her alarm, checked her phone for academic-related emails and messages, and opened her laptop to attend their class online. It’s a routine that Zee and most Filipino college students have come to absorb for the past two years. 

For the rest of the semester, the bitter reality of not having to commute to school with her friends or see to it that she has all her laboratory reports neatly answered and printed out were scenarios that Zee had a hard time grappling with. For the longest time, all the small, mundane things about university life were laid out in her mind clear as day, like spending extended hours in their college laboratory or walking past the greenery of her campus. 

But there was no use for that on that fateful September 5. At least until then, she was stuck at home despite the availability of opting towards a face-to-face setup. 

“Travel was the most difficult part for me. It eats up a lot of my time and money, which hurts me in many ways,” Zee laments. “I cannot afford to go on-campus for only a few in-person classes.”

Although Zee is already back in Davao City for the entirety of the second semester (and the rest of the succeeding terms), she admits that looking back at her plight as a student in an online setup is like rubbing salt on fresh wounds. To her, it’s as if everything she learned during remote learning went down the drain, addressing that the learning gaps of being in an online setup for quite a long time proved a little challenging to bridge during the actual, in-person classes they currently have.  

 “I still think [online class] is bad. I definitely do not learn as much, and I struggle a lot with tests. I’m in my third year and have not practiced laboratory skills in years. If I am to conduct my thesis study, I will need these skills. Otherwise, I won’t be able to finish it and graduate. That’s my biggest worry,” she added.

For students like Zee, the shift back to in-person classes was a welcome development to their otherwise crisis-ridden college education experience. Yet, as her scenario illustrates, the transition back to face-to-face classes is not smooth sailing, never mind “safe,” in the context of the ever-looming presence of COVID and the socioeconomic crisis plaguing the country today.

 For those in the hybrid or blended modes of learning, their quality of education is diminished in the face of not having the full opportunity to socialize with their classmates who cannot yet afford to go back to school or simply being able to participate in the many on-site extracurricular activities, and most importantly, to make use of the facilities needed for their chosen degree programs. 

There might even be some students who haven’t stepped a single foot in the face-to-face classes despite being in a hybrid learning environment. 

Hannah Bogay, a senior AB Psychology student at Ateneo de Davao University, has been going to the campus from the beginning of the school year until her very last exams for her college life. Since the implementation of HISFLEX, Hannah was usually in the Arrupe Hall or the gazebo area, prowling for available seats to attend classes in Google Meet. Albeit always in the school premises, Hannah is yet to (or might never even) experience the HISFLEX classrooms in AdDU as she is expected to graduate this summer term.

“It’s a bit frustrating because I already spent the first few years of college online. Last sem, we only had one subject that required us to go in-campus, but it was a minor subject, and [we] met around 3 or 4 times,” Hannah told Atenews. 

Hailing from North Cotabato, Hannah literally went the extra mile to go to Davao City, hoping she, too, could benefit from the HISFLEX mode of learning that AdDU robustly promotes. Yet, much to her dismay, she spent the entire first semester of her final year in college online. In the succeeding semester, she could not attend classes in the HISFLEX classrooms for most, if not all, of her professional subjects as she was deployed elsewhere for her internship program.

For Hannah, the inconvenience of being on campus despite not having in-person classes is a small price she’s willing to pay to salvage whatever’s left of her once vibrant student life.

“The environment [on campus] is just different. Seeing students having their classes, cramming their outputs, and talking with their friends slowly brought back the pre-pandemic school atmosphere. It definitely helped in my productivity,” she adds. 

A muffled #LigtasNaBalikEskwela campaign?

Indeed, Zee and Hannah are mere faces of the multifaceted struggle millions of Filipino students confront today. While the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) finally took a step towards going back to the pre-pandemic mode of education—thanks to its memorandum last November 2022, which prohibited total distance learning education—its recent announcement last February 2023 is a stark reminder of the inconsistencies of their policies, which for some concerned groups, is not only harming the academic community, but other sectors in the country as well.

Since February 14, CHED retracted its initial memorandum by saying that higher education institutions could still continue delivering “flexible learning” as schools must apply for whatever modality they deem fit based on their capacity to provide. Such a back and forth policy change captures not only the current state of educational governance in the Philippines but also reveals the massive gaps many Filipino students and teachers are compelled to carry on with, eulogized by the quintessential Filipino mark of resiliency. As usual, there has been no shortage of Filipino resilience manifested by how teachers and students have gone the extra mile to adjust and make the most of their sorry situation. 

But, resilience can only get the Philippines so far. The Philippines is one of the last countries in the world to reopen schools, leading to massive learning poverty among Filipino schoolchildren, according to a joint 2022 study by the World Bank, UNESCO, and UNICEF.

Aiming to address and lobby solutions is the #LigtasNaBalikEskwela campaign, a broad nationwide movement spearheaded by advocates for education. Initially led by Rise for Education, a student-led coalition that calls for free, accessible, and quality education programs, the campaign has since been adopted and co-opted by many institutions and organizations in rebuilding the battered state of the Philippine educational system.

Primarily mobilized in social media, the main agenda of the campaign comes from disparate sectors; hence the diverse nature of grievances and calls for solutions. Yet, they all share common ground in their appeal to a “safe” return to classes. For example, members of the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT) and the Teachers’ Dignity Coalition (TDC) launched online and on-ground protests anchored on the hashtag to demand authorities for better and more concrete plans for the safe reopening of schools.

 The protests have come to highlight the plight of teachers and staff who bear the brunt of the swift pace of the sudden shift from online to face-to-face and now to the new hybrid and flexible learning setup that CHED and the Department of Education (DepEd) promotes. Most importantly, the campaign aimed to spotlight disenfranchised students and parents who are also left to wrestle the difficulty of transitioning back to school with the crippling effects of an ailing economy.

The campaign seeks more than just the literal meaning of the “safe” reopening of schools by solely focusing on the democratized access to vaccines. Instead, it pursues better education governance from the administration to bolster the economic and social safety nets among stakeholders who were hit hardest by the crisis. It is anchored on the appeal that the administration must prioritize the overall welfare of students and teachers to fully integrate them into the new learning paradigm.

While the campaign has gained a lot of traction, finding concrete proof of its success is stymied by the aforementioned inconsistent policies by the current administration, coupled with the inadequate resources and lack of foresight to the extensive problems hounding the education sector. If anything, the current administration may have only paid lip service in heeding the call towards the genuine, safe return to reopen schools.

Vingeelou Omar Aton, lead convenor for Rise for Education-Davao and a student-leader at the Ateneo de Davao University, laments that there is “a lack of support from the government” in terms of passing legislation that would ensure the safe resumption of classes. 

“[The] Ligtas na Balik-Eskwela is not a priority of this administration, even by our lawmakers. That alone is a massive roadblock to concretizing the campaign,” Aton states. “Perhaps we can also question the priorities of lawmakers now. It’s definitely not centered around education.”

“Misplaced Priorities” and the Future of post-pandemic education

For many constituents in the education sector, the advent of the new hybrid setup remains rife with the ever-pressing burden of poor internet connectivity and the lack of sufficient resources and facilities that will simultaneously cater to both face-to-face and online formats. Also, CHED’s recent 2.2% or at least 2 billion-peso annual budget cut for 2023 is injurious, no less than to the public schools, but most especially hospitals and health institutions that are allied to universities, like the Philippine General Hospital, the country’s largest and “premier” public hospital that served as the main frontline center during the height of the pandemic.

By emphasizing that the education sector still receives the lion’s share of the annual national budget, the Department of Budget and Management deflects some concerned groups’ allegations that the budget cut reflects the administration’s “misplaced priorities.” Yet, by looking at the recent controversies from DepEd and CHED, with their debacles on confidential funds and ghost scholars, respectively, one can never really blame those who cry for justice. 

Interestingly, the financial scandals come at a time when the education secretary herself has pledged support to reinstate ROTC into the fold—indeed, advocating for a different brand of safety and security for Filipino students. Many higher education campuses, supposedly beacons of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, have faced increased hostility and militarization from state forces. 

Such a militarized approach may have blurred the real essence of the #LigtasNaBalikEskwela campaign, neglecting simple calls of marginalized students, like those under the SPED and Indigenous Peoples (IP) curricula, who are yet to literally step inside hybrid learning-ready classrooms since the get-go of the return to campus mandates last year. 

Lastly, the safe return back to school cannot be divorced from the equally important causes that have since been made more salient in the past years: mental health and efficient transportation. 

The rising suicide, self-harm, and other mental health-related concerns during and in the aftermath of the pandemic have prompted youth sectors in Congress to urgently pass bills that strengthen access to mental health services. Meanwhile, the recent jeepney transport strike elicited yet another “word war” between the administration and progressive groups, burying the real issue that a problematic transportation system also affects our education system. The road back to safe and equitable education is literally and figuratively crisis-ridden, too. 

In one of the press conferences of CHED last year, a senior official boldly claimed that there is no turning back to the old educational paradigm; we are now in the era of flexible learning. The claim is laudable, to say the least. It recognizes that the best way to navigate the new normal’s turbulent waters is to embrace innovation. 

Yet, such a pronouncement requires authentic action that is deeply attuned to the realities on the ground. Because for the likes of Zee and Hannah and the other Filipino teachers and students who excruciatingly juggle part or full-time jobs, work overtime, and have unconducive working environments, CHED and DepEd’s policies seem out of touch with their plight. The fast-paced impulse towards educational innovations risks the danger of leaving behind those who actually need it most. 

The fate of the #LigtasNaBalikEskwela rests not on mere hollow words and misguided concerns; it ultimately stems from a genuine drive to give what Filipino students and teachers genuinely deserve. Otherwise, we may well be on our road back to being stuck in an endless cycle of hashtags that leave no lasting change in real life other than creating more echo chambers in a virtual space that has done nothing but tear Filipinos apart.

This article was published in the April 2023 Issue of Atenews. Read it here: https://issuu.com/atenews/docs/atenews_2023_tabloid 



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