By Eduardo Y. Arevalo,
COO, PHINMA University of Iloilo
The past months have seen some of the biggest changes in recent history. As we approach the third quarter of the year, one issue looms larger than others: should we resume education for almost 30 million Filipino students. Many have even questioned if we should resume classes at all. But prolonged school closures have been shown to have devastating consequences and many countries like Vietnam and Taiwan are successfully reopening their school systems. Why and how have they done it? How can we, in turn, safely reopen our schools?
Education is a human right and has often been called the only way out of poverty. For Filipino families, it is an investment and a priority worthy of sacrifice. But the goal of education is not merely to ensure that our children get degrees and find employment. Especially in times of crisis, education cultivates critical thinking and encourages solutions both big and small. It also provides them the stability they need to be able to cope with loss, fear, and stress. And most of all, it reminds them that life has not stopped, that the future is still ahead.
In short, education in times of crisis is not optional, but in fact, essential.
Education in Times of Crisis
Education has always continued, even in times of crisis. This has been true for anywhere from child soldiers in Mozambique, to war-affected youth in Guatemala, to child survivors of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. (Sinclair, 2003) UNHCR’s 1997 report on efforts on behalf of refugee children and adolescents highlighted how daily structured activities for the large majority of children and adolescents is an integral part of emergency response, second only to food distribution.
We have both the opportunity and responsibility to make sure our students do not suffer consequences that clearly result from prolonged school closures. We have already achieved a lot in getting poor children into schools. According to the Department of Education (DepEd), 9% of the estimated 39.2 million school-age Filipinos were out-of-school in 2017. Each year they are not in school translates to a 10% loss in their potential additional earnings. They also become more likely to dropout or be exploited. From 2008 to 2012, out-of-school children already decreased by 65%. We cannot fail them now.
Consequences of Prolonged School Closures
Closing schools, even briefly, doesn’t just impact mental health, it also hurts children’s prospects. After the 2011 flooding in Thailand, Thamtanajit (2020) found that the school shutdown had a negative effect on the results of the national O-Net examinations, especially for
Grades 6 and 9. A decrease in test scores can lead to lower educational attainment and earnings.
School closures carry high social and economic costs for people across communities, but especially for those in the low-income brackets. Education for 5 million students was disrupted during the 2014-2015 Ebola outbreak in west Africa, with devastating consequences. Child labor and sexual exploitation increased. Unplanned teen pregnancies rose sharply. Access to clean water, sanitation, and information on disease prevention stalled. When schools reopened, many students did not return. (The Economist, 2020)
School closures also worsen the symptoms of students with mental health issues, as a 2020 YoungMinds survey in the UK showed. (Lee, 2020) Young Filipinos, too, are in the midst of a mental health crisis, according to Dr. Cornelio Banaag Jr., psychiatrist and professor emeritus at the University of the Philippines College of Medicine. The generation born after 1994 are the most severely affected, with stress as the major trigger for mental disorders. (Caruncho, 2019) Without school, they are cut off from social networks and could go even deeper into depression.
Reopening Classes in the Wake of COVID-19
Our goal is to make learning accessible to all, especially for those with no devices or internet access. In the Philippines, this is no simple task. 35% of learners have no access to a stable internet connection, 50% struggle to access online learning material due to connectivity, and 22% will not be able to complete their school year through flexible learning. Our solutions must be both carefully researched and creatively executed.
Some countries like Singapore, Australia, Sweden, and Taiwan have kept schools open, with face-to-face learning. They had various considerations, among them, the lack of internet access and the low health risk for students. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), among COVID-19 deaths, 99.9 percent have occurred outside the 15-to-24 age group. Modelling shows that efforts such as handwashing and home isolation have more impact on both the spread of disease and health care measures.
PHINMA Education and the New Normal
According to former Education Secretary Edilberto C. de Jesus, “Experts do not expect a vaccine to be widely available before 18 to 24 months. We need, therefore, to weigh the potential risks of a vaccine-less school reopening against the certain harm that will follow from a lengthy school lockdown.” Several countries around the world have either begun or announced plans to reopen, with many using a staged approach and providing specific health guidelines.
PHINMA Education, besides lowering the classroom-to-student ratio and ramping up health measures, is implementing an innovative ‘4-10’ scheme. Based on the research of Uri Alon and Ron Milo, professors of computational and systems biology at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, a person who contracts COVID-19 will have three days before he or she can pass it on to others. (Alon, Milo, & Yashiv, 2020) With four days in school and ten days at home, we reduce the chances of the spread of the disease.
Across history we have seen the negative effects of prolonged school closures not just on individuals but on entire nations. We need to base our strategies on emerging COVID-19 research and work with communities and local and national governments to prevent any further school closures. The risks of a carefully calculated reopening of classes are far more manageable compared to the known consequences of not reopening at all.