By Carl Sebastian Arabiran

Cartoon by John Dave Poot

“Learning never exhausts the mind,” they say. And I have found it to be true. In the Philippines, knowledge is idly waiting to occupy willing minds; it is our pockets instead that are being emptied in exchange for a chance to “learn” — if we could even call it that. 

The long-term effects of the outgoing administration’s willful ignorance of the toll exacted by the pandemic on our education system are yet to be felt. With millions of students left behind and the quality of online learning being called into question, the Philippines faces a grim future as its education arm remains inert.

While the hope of returning to the “normal student life” lives with the forecasted nationwide return of in-person classes come the A.Y. 2022-2023, this too, begs the question, with that much lost, will we be able to keep up?

Before the pandemic exacerbated our long-standing economic and political problems, the education system of the Philippines was already in a crisis. From the premature implementation of the K-12 program to the long-standing lack of professional development among teachers, the government has since been sustaining a deteriorating educational school system — and even with the increase in the budget allocated for the sector, it seems that the education system will still face significant deficits this year.

During COVID-19’s peak, the Department of Education (DepEd) expected about 28 million students to learn from their homes. However, 4.4 million students were unable to enroll in late 2020 due to the abrupt changes they were required to follow, owing to the rising digital divide between the rich and the poor. Albeit enrollment rates increased in 2021 with just 1.1 million students unable to enroll, the events of 2020 imposed a one-year setback for 3.3 million students, and two years for the 1.1 million who were still unable to enroll in 2021. And for a country that was already among the lowest before the pandemic, these figures jeopardize the Philippines' educational stability in the coming years.

Apart from the anti-poor nature of online classes, the quality of education being received by those students who can keep up with the system is also being compromised. In fact, a survey conducted by the Movement for Safe, Equitable, Quality, and Relevant Education (SEQuRe) in December 2020, showed that 70.9% of educators believe that online learning is not effective, and 53% of students are not certain if they are even learning and/or retaining anything from the classes.

Although it can be argued that online distance learning did what it could to keep the education up among our youth despite the pandemic, it is most definitely not a long-term solution. For this reason, the projected nationwide return of in-person classes has never been more important as too much damage has already been done. Our chances of getting back on our feet as a nation lie on the steadfast recovery of the country’s education system — and should the government fail to put enough effort into this problem, the odds of our nation regaining its economic security for the next 20 to 50 years will be slim to none.

Facts in hand, it is time we focus on what will be our long-standing problem if the mistakes made by the past administrations are not rectified. The education system remains as the primary outlet of the underprivileged to escape the poverty line. Should it remain almost inaccessible as it is today, generations of Filipino children will be denied the right to  education that they rightfully deserve. 

With that much at stake, it is too great of a gamble to hand the reins of national education to Sara Duterte, whose experience with the sector is virtually scarce to none. The Philippines needs an education czar whose experience in the academic field may be put to use as the learning system of the country attempts to crawl its way out of total regression, and although Duterte is ‘ready to rumble’, I fear that guts is just not going to cut it this time. Moreover, the sector will need someone who could give more emphasis on restructuring the K-12 curriculum to ease the burden on the students who were left behind and are now dependent on the government for help to get back on their tracks. And for someone whose background lies within the field of law, restoring the quality of education in the Philippines is definitely not the right job for Duterte.

As it is expected that the goals of the incoming administration are geared towards restoring their reputation, we must ensure that the recovery of our academic arm is being prioritized.  Continue to demand change, for only through education will we be able to combat the looming attempt to rewrite our past.

The last two years have already taken more than what we have. We may have lasted this long, but succumbing to regression will be our imminent demise if a change is not brought to the system. This is why it is important to remember that it is through education that great civilizations are buoyed, and if our academic arm remains inert, it will be evident that keeping up is not enough when you are just inches away from hitting the bedrock.