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Saturday, September 25, 2021
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Special Report: Distance learning in the new normal

"I AM worried. Last semester, we had online classes and I really struggled when it came to meeting requirements and passing them online," said Lance Pepito, Grade 9 student of a private school in Cebu City, when asked if he was excited about the upcoming opening of classes.

Pepito said he had difficulty focusing on his studies given the many distractions at home and online.

Four months into the community quarantines in Cebu intended to contain the spread of Sars-CoV-2 that causes Covid-19, the education department has gone all out in its efforts to go digital, especially after President Rodrigo Duterte said in May that he would not allow students to return to school until a vaccine for Covid-19 became available.

The road to digitalization has not been easy, however.

While there has been some success in the enrollment arena, bumps are still aplenty in the matter of the preparation of the course work and the schemes intended for the delivery of this course work to students, who, for the most part, would be staying home to stay safe from the virus.

The challenges for schools include the anticipated increase in costs associated with the shift to distance learning, limited access to the Internet for both teachers and learners, and -- for private schools -- whether there will still be enough students to pay tuition to make their operations viable in the coming school year.

Impact on teachers

Salustiano Jimenez, Department of Education-Central Visayas (DepEd 7) director, said the pandemic has had no effect yet on the salaries of the around 82,000 public teaching and non-teaching personnel of the department.

Though they are mainly working remotely in their homes, they are still entitled to the same salary they received prior to the pandemic.

There have been no lay-offs of teachers as well because the Magna Carta for Public School Teachers protects their tenure.

They are still getting their regular bonuses and pay hikes due to the teaching step-increment, reclassification due to professional growth, and the yearly tranches for salary increase, he said.

Last May, DepEd 7 personnel were able to receive their midyear bonus. And last June, teachers also received their cash allowance, previously the chalk allowance, worth P3,500.

Jimenez, however, said, it might become a problem if the pandemic worsens and it will be decided that there will be no classes for a year, as other government agencies might complain why teachers are still paid while doing no work.

"The question there is what our teachers will be doing if ever there will be no classes for the whole school year," he said.

President Duterte, on July 17, signed Republic Act 11480 that gives him power to set a different date for the classes nationwide during times of emergency or calamity.

RA 11480 amends RA 7797 that set the start of the school year "on the first Monday of June but not later than the last day of August."

The new law covers all elementary and high schools in the country, including foreign and international schools.

Education Secretary Leonor Briones earlier said basic education classes would start on August 24.

Meanwhile, Commission on Higher Education-Central Visayas (Ched 7) Director Maximo Aljibe said he had not heard of layoffs in higher education institutions (HEI), except for one HEI in Bohol province that had decided to stop its operations for the coming school year as a result of the financial crisis brought about by the pandemic.

Aljibe said all of the HEI's employees had been affected.

"I hope no more schools will have the same fate," he said in Cebuano.

Enrollment

The DepEd 7 said it had exceeded its enrollment target for public schools, but this is a lowered target of just 80 percent of what would have been expected in a normal school year.

Jimenez said a total of 1,568,172 students for public basic education in the region already enrolled as of 5:30 p.m. of July 15, 2020, the last day of the 45-day enrollment period for the SY 2020-2021.

The turnout is 89.31 percent of the enrollment for the previous school year, which was at 1,755,903.

For private basic education enrollment, about 79,000 learners or about 25 percent of last year's numbers have enrolled.

He said most private schools cannot submit the complete enrollment yet, as most accept on-the-dot enrollment given financial considerations.

Due to the pandemic, this year's enrollment was done in various ways. There was enrollment via the schools' websites and Facebook's Messenger application, as well as through short message service.

In mountain areas, most schools used the drop box method, Jimenez said.

The bulk of the enrollment for HEIs in the region was also done online, except for those in the provinces of Bohol and Siquijor, which allowed physical enrollment with health protocols in place, Aljibe said.

There are no Covid-19 cases in Siquijor, and Bohol had only 70 cases as of July 19. Cebu, however, has more than 13,000 cases, 6,805 of them active.

Tuition by all means

Majority of HEIs, he said, also went digital in accepting tuition payment via bank transfer and other means of electronic money transfer.

"Lahat na lang ng accommodation ina-accommodate. There is that Bayanihan spirit," he said.

Equally important, he noted a migration of students from private to public schools this year, possibly due to monetary challenges brought by the pandemic-induced lockdowns that have hit incomes.

He cited the case of the Cebu Technological University (CTU).

"In CTU alone, they can no longer accommodate the number of enrollees for this year," he said.

"For their engineering degree program, they have only 150 slots, but the applications reached almost 1,500," he added.

Although government schools would want to accommodate more students, they also have limitations in absorptive capacity, he said.

Aljibe hopes this would not be the case in other schools as this may become a problem for less fortunate students who cannot afford to go to private school but could no longer be accommodated in public schools either.

The Ched Merit Scholarship Program (CMSP), a yearly competitive scholarship given to students based on their grades in the previous school year, has been suspended this school year.

The Full Merit and Half Merit scholarships were open to all student applicants and the money was used for paying tuition and miscellaneous fees and other education expenses of students.

Ched Chairman J. Prospero De Vera III, in a statement on May 22, said Ched will suspend the application of the CMSP which has 2,467 new slots for incoming freshman college students for the school year 2020-2021 "to urgently support and contribute to the government's efforts in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic and to prioritize need-based scholarships rather than merit-based scholarships."

With the available funding, he said, they can cover only existing scholars to ensure their continuous education during these difficult times.

In a separate development, Aljibe said 23 of the 37 schools which applied for tuition increase for this school year had withdrawn their applications.

Of the 14 remaining schools, seven filed for tuition increase applicable only for incoming freshmen while the rest applied for a hike applicable to all year levels.

He said Ched will see to it that the schools submit a notarized certification that they conducted consultation with stakeholders.

He also said they will make sure the increase will not go beyond the region's inflation rate as much as possible.

Curriculum

The DepEd 7 said there have been no changes in the curriculum despite the new normal requiring physical distancing.

Classes such as Physical Education, Theater, Music and other perceived "contact classes" can still continue while having their theory portion taught first and having the application conducted later when the pandemic passes.

DepEd decided to streamline only its learning competencies for this school year.

He said after consultation with all the bureau directors and the regional directors, they decided to come up with the Most Essential Learning Competencies (MELC) to be developed among the learners in the coming school year.

Learning competencies, according to DepEd, refer to "the knowledge, understanding, skills and attitudes that students need to demonstrate in every lesson and/or learning activity."

Jimenez said to guide DepEd on how to continue with education while taking into consideration the safety and health of the learners, teachers and their personnel, they developed the Learning Continuity Plan (LCP).

As part of DepEd's LCP, the K to 12 curriculum has been streamlined to 5,689 MELCs from the original 14,171 MELCs or reduced by 60 percent.

"It does not mean that learners are learning less. The other competencies are subsumed in the most essential learning competencies," he said. "Possibly fewer hours if in school but more activities at home."

Ched 7, for its part, said it requires only that schools comply with the minimum requirements for their curriculum.

Classroom setup

As to classroom setup should face-to-face classes be slowly allowed in the future, Jimenez said shifting of classes will be observed.

He said only half of the actual class size may be asked to come to school on Mondays and Wednesdays, while the other half of the class will be scheduled on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Teachers can use Fridays as extra days for their class preparation.

"We cannot have classes for five straight days a week with physical distancing. This would need more classrooms and more teachers," he said.

In terms of operating expenses, he said DepEd has saved on water and electricity consumption for the past months, but costs for schools are seen to rise should students go to school already.

The pandemic has changed the delivery of classes as various levels, depending on the school's location, have opted to use different types of blended learning.

Blended learning

Aljibe said majority of the 185 HEIs in the region chose to have blended modes of learning, as going full online was not feasible with Internet connectivity problems and not everyone able to afford to buy the needed gadgets. So online will be blended with the modular method where packages of learning will be delivered.

He said the Ched central office and the Department of Health have yet to release final guidelines on limited face-to-face classes in various quarantine areas.

Earlier, the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases, as recommended by the Ched, said the opening of classes would be based on education delivery mode: HEIs with full online education can open anytime; HEIs using flexible learning can open anytime in August; HEIs using significant face-to-face or in-person mode can open not earlier than September 1 in areas under general community quarantine; and no face-to-face classes will be held until August 31.

For basic education, Jimenez said, Central Visayas will mainly use the modular method of class delivery complemented by radio- or television-based instruction.

Modular method means printed modules will be handed to and retrieved from the student's house weekly. The modules will come with other reference books which schools used to lend to students.

The modules which Jimenez refers to as "self-learning kits" will contain instructions and activity sheets for the students. These will be free for students.

One MELC is equivalent to one module. For the first grading period, there are a total of 1,072 MELCS. Each module consists of 24 to 32 pages.

Some of the schools divisions, he said, are now printing the modules for the first quarter while others will start printing by the end of July.

All divisions have a scheduled dry run for their chosen modality.

All schools divisions are also enjoined to come up with ways to deliver the modules to their students. Cebu Province, for instance, has the Sugbo Box for Sugbo Padala.

Sugbo Padala, he said, has facilitators who will serve as couriers of the learning kits to Purok Leaders who, in turn, will distribute the kits to the students' houses.

The same goes for the retrieval of these kits.

Teachers also have to orient students' guardians through parent brigades so that they may assist their children in their studies and tasks, he said.

Online learning

On the other hand, some schools which have sufficient budget have prepared for online distance learning.

These include Science elementary and secondary schools.

These, he said, are special classes with a limited number of learners whose parents, most at least, are also willing to spend extra since these students are advanced in terms of gadgets and computer usage.

Jimenez, quoting a national survey, said though 77 percent of teachers nationwide have access to various gadgets that can be used for distance learning, the problem on internet connectivity remains -- with some areas remaining as dead spots.

Some schools in mountain areas, he said, will try having the radio and TV-based instruction method where a teacher can pre-tape his/her instructions using flash drives.

The radio and TV-based instruction method also comes with activity sheets and modules, but different from those intended for the modular method.

Jimenez admitted that this method entails problems, especially on cost and the limited number of airing hours stations could devote to it.

"There are initial talks, but there was that instruction from the central office to put on hold, for the meantime, all the transactions since it entails financial considerations," he said.

Vulnerable students

He admitted that the incoming school year will also be a challenge for the special education (Sped) teachers as they are requested to conduct house-to-house classes for their students.

He said a Sped teacher may be asked to handle a maximum of seven Sped students living in nearby areas.

The region has 4,277 enrolled learners with disability, or 29.30 percent compared to last school year's enrollment.

Furthermore, Jimenez assured that the department's School-Based Feeding Program (SBFP) for undernourished students will continue with its budget ready to be downloaded to the division offices; however, this will no longer be school-based as it will possibly be done house to house, in partnership with barangay officials.

In SY 2016-2017, the DepEd's Cebu Provincial Schools Division fed more than 35,000 children from kindergarten to Grade 6 for 120 days under the SBFP.

"It costs a lot, but I cannot tell you for now how much we need. But these are concerted efforts from the central office, regional office, division office, and the LGUs (local government units) and the NGOs (non-government organizations) pouring all our resources in order to implement the Basic Education Learning Continuity Plan," he said.

Benefactors

Jimenez said their division offices have partnered with NGOs ranging from the bank industry, to various Rotary clubs and individual benefactors.

Some LGUs and NGOs, he said, donated laptops, printers and pocket WiFi for teachers. Some LGUs also donated risograph machines and ink for the printing of the modules.

The DepEd central office, he said, also allocated a budget for the identified needs of the division offices depending on their chosen modalities.

Earlier, DepEd 7 had urged the 19 divisions in the region to come up with a "menu of needs" so the schools' stakeholders could check what a particular school actually needs for the resumption of classes amid Covid-19.

He said stakeholders can sponsor or donate face masks, which students and teachers can use if face-to-face classes will be allowed, handwashing facilities at the schools' entrance, sanitizers, and alcohol.

The DepEd, he said, is also negotiating with the National Telecommunications Commission in regard to Internet connectivity. But he admitted that this remains a challenge as poor Internet connection had also been a problem even in the Senate.

Grading system

Meanwhile, Jimenez said the DepEd 7 will adopt a new way of assessing and grading students this school year.

From giving numeric grades, it will now adopt a pass or fail system in accordance with certain learning rubrics.

Rafael, real name withheld, a college professor in a sectarian university in Cebu City which uses full online distancing learning, shared that based on a book he read, creating activities and examination questions whose answers are not found in the lecture is a way to discourage students from cheating at home under the new setup.

There are classes like Biology, however, which also require the objective type of tests. When it comes to that type of exam, he said, the LMS (learning management system) that their school uses has a mode that inhibits students from browsing in Google and other search engines.

As for the grading scheme, he believes majority of the LMS used by schools that opted for full-online learning also have an integrated way of grading.

For instance, he said, a student gains points every time he finishes going through a particular lesson. The points will be recorded in a grading area that the teacher has allocated for the lesson.

"But what we are trying hard to explain to the students is that it is not about grades. It is about what you learned from the course," he said.

Retooling teachers

Rafael said the current learning situation has called for retooling among teachers.

For his part, he said, restructuring the syllabus intended for face-to-face learning into online modules is not easy.

It required countless hours in front of the computer deciding which topics could be merged and which topics to include, creating engaging exercises that will allow students to be productive on their own.

This means at the start of the class, the teacher has to make sure the students understand the benefits of self-paced learning, he said.

As a teacher, he said, he also has to consider how many hours his students can spend online in addition to their access to the Internet.

To help his students, he has an open communication policy in all of his classes. He also showed his students how to use tools in the Internet including online libraries.

Fortunately, he said, their school had training on how to conduct online classes using LMS.

The biggest challenge teachers, especially those used to the traditional way of teaching, encountered in the past full-online summer classes in their school was familiarity with the online tools, he said.

He also said classes that require the use of a laboratory were swapped with general education subjects and were transferred to the later part of the student's syllabus.

Parents

The new style of teaching will require adjustments also from parents.

Photographer Alex Badayos, who has five school-aged children studying from Grades 5 to 12 in public schools, said the online classes will require him to buy a laptop.

The lone personal computer he already has won't be enough to serve the needs of all his children, even if the Lawaan Elementary School and National High School in Talisay City allowed him to schedule the online classes of his children so that some can use the computer in the morning and the others in the afternoon.

He said he'd also need to pay for prepaid Internet when school starts.

Journalist Justin Vestil, whose nine-year-old child is an incoming Grade 4 student in a private school, said he'd have to hire a tutor to help his son with his lessons since both he and his wife have to leave the house for work.

On his son doing school work at home instead of in school, he said: "I don't like it because I will be spending more money even though I'd be doing what my son's teachers should be doing. I hope they'll consider lowering the cost of the tuition, especially with the home schooling."

He said having lessons delivered over radio or TV could also be a problem, as it could tempt children to switch to cartoons if there is no one to supervise them as they watch their lessons.

Office worker Ronila Campaña, whose daughter is a college student, said the online method of teaching will be difficult for some people, including her daughter.

"We don't have an available computer to use every day and for a longer period of time. And our place is not a conducive learning environment due to the limited space in the place we are renting."

Asked how she will supervise the school work of her children, single parent Flor Querubin, whose sons are aged 19, 16 and 7, said, "I have no choice but to leave my sons on their own when I head for work."

She said the two older boys would have to be responsible enough to look after their youngest brother during online class.

Badayos said his wife, who is a housewife, will be able to supervise the school work of their children.

Lavella Sitoy, Master Teacher 1 in Buaya Elementary School, said parents' support is crucial so they can assist their children in their learning process.

As for the case of improving how blended learning can be unpacked for children, she said parents and teachers must communicate with each other even through online platforms.

Querubin and Badayos approved of the new learning methods in the sense that these help protect their children from crowds and the coronavirus.

Badayos said he preferred that his children, four of whom picked the full-online mode of classes, study at home since if they had to go to school, on the walk back home through a crowded community, they would surely see other young people and be tempted to play truant, exposing themselves to the virus.

Beyond education

In a separate development, the University of Cebu, among the schools which will adopt the blended mode of learning, said the school has formed a campus health and safety committee as preparation for when face-to-face learning will be allowed.

Candice Gotianuy, UC Chancellor, said UC also went beyond providing education to assisting stranded students and affected teachers.

"UC has quietly been helping our faculty, staff and students. We released P250,000 in financial aid to stranded students in Cebu. We also had summer load pay to teachers in April even when classes were called off. We have also been giving a monthly financial assistance to staff and employees," she said.

Lawyer Jack Sarausad, UC's executive vice chancellor, said they have six doctors who agreed to do free online medical consultation for all employees and students. A Facebook page serves as the main venue for booking of appointments.

"We will also be implementing online counseling for mental health concerns. Our guidance counselors and social workers are polishing the details for the implementation," he said.

Students hit

The pandemic is also posing a threat to the scholarship opportunities of working students.

Earl Cynel Padronia, 20, a first year BS in Mechanical Engineering working student in UC, has yet to enroll himself for the incoming school year as he is still awaiting the school's announcement for scholarships.

"I do not have other means which I could count on for my studies. I am largely dependent on the working scholarship," he said.

Gotianuy said scholarship matters in their school are still under discussion, but it will be hard to sustain especially if there are no face-to-face classes as working students are supposed to work inside the campuses.

However, Sarausad said they allowed working scholars who are graduating students (those who will graduate after the Summer class and those who will graduate after the first semester) and those who have mandatory summer classes to continue with their scholarship privileges last summer.

Some quarters have criticized DepEd's decision to open schools in the middle of a pandemic. Some students and even lawmakers have been vocal in their call for an academic freeze.

But Rafael said such will be unfair to students who want to "move forward" with their education.

"Do we deprive them? Do we also deprive teachers of private schools of their livelihood as private schools are heavily dependent on enrollment for their salary and for the schools to go on?" he asked.

Jimenez hopes they will go on despite the difficulties in implementing distance learning and the questions on its effectiveness.

"We are in the world of uncertainty. We don't know what will happen next. On the DepEd side, we are doing our best in preparing for the opening of the very special school year 2020-2021. By giving ourselves sincerely, there is always that hope that we are assured of learning among our learners," he said. (With CTL)


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