How should schools respond to the pandemic?

When Luzon was placed under enhanced community quarantine on March 16, the education system was greatly disrupted. Everyone was ordered to stay indoors as much as possible and maintain social distancing. Public transportation was also suspended. With these changes, schools were forced to transition into an online and remote mode of learning, but the swift implementation of the ECQ gave schools little to no time to prepare for such.

With the extension of the ECQ until May 15, students and teachers no longer have time to return to their classrooms and continue their semesters on-site. Schools are left with very little options. What should schools consider when deciding on what to do in light of the pandemic?

The Commission on Higher Education (CHED) allows universities and colleges to pursue policies and decisions as a response to the COVID-19 crisis. Meanwhile, the Department of Education stands firmagainst the implementation of mass promotion in public schools while discouraging the same for private schools. Many schools continue to pursue their semesters online; some, such as the University of the Philippines, have implemented deferred grade policy that would give students more time beyond the academic calendar to fulfill their requirements.

However, students have expressed their support for mass promotion. On May 2, the National Union of Students of the Philippines (NUSP) initiated an online campaign to call for #MassPromotionNow and #EndSemesterNow. The call also demands a refund of unused school fees to provide students and their families the much needed economic support. NUSP finds that mass promotion is both practical and humanitarian. It recognizes that “the suspension of classes has affected the phasing of learning modules and has altered the curriculum. Online learning, meanwhile, does not guarantee quality education and excludes those without stable internet access and devices,” NUSP wrote in a statement.

According to CHED, it is difficult to craft a blanket recommendation for all schools to implement, but whatever a school’s response to the pandemic may be, it must be rooted in empathy and a deep understanding of the real situation of their students.

How does mass promotion work?

Two universities that have implemented a pass all policy are Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU) and Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila (PLM). The two will be giving all their students a passing mark, with special consideration to the graduating students. ADMU allows graduating students to request for their grades while PLM gives its graduating class an entire year to fulfill their requirements.

As PLM and ADMU are only halfway through their semesters when the ECQ was implemented, students have not provided enough output to base an assessment on. The pass all policy will mean that the schools will be unable to compute for the students’ final semester grades but will be effectively promoting everyone.

PLM President Emmanuel Leyco clarifies that neither merits nor demerits will be given to students. Dr. Benjamin Gerardo Tolosa, Associate Dean for the Core Curriculum at ADMU, emphasizes that it is “difficult and unfair to make a judgment of failure considering that students have not been given the benefit of a full semester to improve their performance.” More so, numerical grades in a time of crisis might say more about the student’s conditions and learning environment more than their actual learning outcomes and efforts.

PLM and ADMU acknowledge that, even if they had wanted to continue their semesters, they are not well-equipped to conduct online classes. For one, not all of their faculty members have the right resources to facilitate such an arrangement. Apart from that, the courses and programs were mapped with a mostly face-to-face setup in mind. Attempts at replicating the same learning outcomes through a vastly different pedagogical approach — that is, online learning — may not be effective.

Their decisions were based on the specific situations of their students. Through a student-initiated surveystudent-initiated survey found, ADMU found that 12.3% of their students have no access to reliable internet connectivity. Meanwhile, Leyco informed CNN Philippines Life that more than half of PLM’s students have no internet connectivity or even the proper gadgets to participate in online classes. “We cannot allow the digital divide to stop us from giving quality education to our students,” Leyco shares. Given the unequal access to resources among their student population, both schools believe that any decision that would require everyone to go online is an unfair one.

PLM and AdMU also acknowledge the anxiety that the pandemic brings. Leyco finds that adding the pressure of a numerical grading system and academic deadlines will just prolong the students’ agonies in an already stressful situation. With everyone prioritizing safety and survival, students may not feel connected enough with their academic obligations. “It’s not just the teaching and learning we worry about,” Tolosa says. “We have to worry about our country; we have to worry about the world, even as we are worried about our individual families and situations.”

Repercussions of the policy

The implementation of a pass all policy does not come without repercussions. A shortened semester may create learning gaps that may affect the proceeding semesters if not addressed accordingly. However, the shortened semester also gives the schools more time to prepare for the future.

ADMU is focusing on creating bridging programs that would cover any learning gaps caused by the ECQ. The university’s faculty and administrative members are also preparing for a more flexible learning arrangement if the situation aggravates and continues to extend until the next school year.

PLM is busy revisiting their plans for the next school year and adapting it to the current situation. They are preparing to revamp their facilities so that it can accommodate social distancing guidelines and equipped with multimedia and connectivity tools. They are also looking at rearranging their class hours to allow for shifting class schedules in the next school year. Apart from that, they are reviewing their curriculum and redesigning it to be flexible, modular, and considerate of the learning gaps left by the shortened semester.

COVID-19 is experienced on a global scale, yet there are differences in the way it impacts people’s lives. Tolosa advises to “respond to the differences” as the COVID-19 highlights inequalities much more. AdMU will also issue a tuition refund to its students while ensuring that all Loyola Schools employees continue to receive salaries and benefits. They also encourage students to donate their refunds, or a portion of it, to a channel such as the LS Emergency Funds which aim to support students and other stakeholders in need.

The pandemic has disrupted not just the education system, but people’s lives as a whole. It has left many in survival mode and riddled with anxiety. Schools should function as spaces of hope and comfort in a time of crisis. Educators must remember to return to their social obligation and teach not just competency, but also compassion. As Tolosa says, “The challenge is much broader: it is a world that probably needs to be responded to. We have to face a world that we probably have to transform and remake so that it becomes much more just and compassionate.”

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