Millions of children in the Philippines returned to school as the academic year started on Monday, August 22, with many taking their seats in classrooms for the first time since the pandemic hit.
The Philippines is one of the last countries in the world to resume full-time, in-person lessons — sparking warnings that the prolonged closure of classrooms had worsened an education crisis in the country.
Children in masks and uniforms lined up for a temperature check and squirt of hand sanitizer at Pedro Guevara Elementary School in Manila, which had shut classrooms since March 2020.
The school has adopted a hybrid system of in-person and remote learning as it transitions its nearly 6,000 students back to face-to-face classes by November — a deadline set by President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. soon after he took office two months ago.
Grade six student Sophia Macahilig said she was “excited” to meet her classmates and teachers after two years of Zoom lessons.
“We used to have fun and now I can have fun again,” 11-year-old Macahilig told AFP.
But many students have a lot of catching up to do.
Even before the pandemic, nine out of 10 Filipino children could “not read a simple text with comprehension” by age 10, the World Bank and other agencies said in a recent report.
Only 10 countries were worse off, including Afghanistan, Laos, Chad and Yemen.
After Philippine schools closed, a “blended learning” program involving online classes, printed materials and lessons broadcast on television and social media was introduced.
As face-to-face classes resume, old problems persist: large class sizes, outdated teaching methods, poverty, and lack of basic infrastructure — such as toilets — have been blamed for contributing to the education crisis.
Pedro Guevara science teacher Ethel Tumanan, 32, said she was worried that students had missed out on valuable learning over the past two years.
“As a teacher, we really prefer face-to-face, at least we are the ones who can gauge and assess where our pupils are at.”
In the lead-up to the reopening of classrooms, the government has been ramping up a vaccination drive and will provide students with free public transport until the end of the calendar year.
On Saturday, the government began handing out cash aid to students and parents struggling to cover expenses, leading to chaotic scenes outside distribution centres.
In the city of Zamboanga, 29 people were injured when several thousand tried to push through the gate of a high school.
First step to addressing learning crisis
At the start of classes, UNICEF proposed concrete actions to tackle what it described as the “learning poverty” in the Philippines.
“As we welcome children back into the classrooms today, let’s remember that this is the first of many steps in our learning recovery journey,” said UNICEF Philippines Representative Oyunsaikhan Dendevnorov.
“Each day spent in the classroom is an opportunity for us to improve and chart the path to an effective, equitable, and resilient education system,” added Dendevnorov.
In a statement, the UN body stressed that recovering lost learning requires a “sustained whole of society approach.”
“Experience from schools and early learning centers that piloted in-person classes revealed that parents, local officials, the business sector and community members played a crucial role in ensuring that learning continues,” it said.
UNICEF has expressed support for the “safe reopening of all schools and early learning centers” by providing technical assistance through guidelines and standard operating procedures.
Meanwhile, youth groups and student organizations called on the government for the declaration of an “education crisis” following the emergence of issues of alleged corruption and anomalies in the Education department in recent months.
The youth groups said they aim “to bridge the call and the agenda” to the administration of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr and the various government agencies that are focused on education. – with a report from Agence France Presse