On November 15, 97 public schools opened their doors once again to classroom instruction after 20 months of closure and a shift to remote learning for more than one full academic year. The Philippines is one of the only countries in the world to have remained closed, with no exceptions, for so long. According to the President, Rodrigo Roa Duterte, the public health risks were simply too great for household and community transmission of the COVID-19 virus in this country where crowded metropolitan areas and multigenerational families living in the same home is the norm.
The decision to reopen schools was based on the increasing number of teachers and adults who are vaccinated and reduced overall prevalence of the virus and its variants. Schools had to apply to be a part of the face-to-face pilot and meet all the requirements set in the school safety assessment tool (SSAT), which includes alternative work arrangement, classroom layout and structure, school traffic management, protective measures, hygiene practices and safety procedures, communication strategy, including strategies for teaching and learning such as arrangements of class size and sections, class program with specific schedules, and teacher support. The guidelines also emphasize well-being and protection including the availability of personnel, availability and adequacy of supplies, and strategies for COVID-19 case management. Class sizes are limited, the sessions are shorter than the normal school day, and parents must opt in. Taking into consideration the concept of “shared responsibility,” the most important deciding factors for the inclusion of schools in the limited face to face classes is the support of the local government units and the parents.
The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), through the All Children Reading, ABC+, and ReachHealth projects implemented by RTI International in the Philippines, is providing support for this pilot in various ways including the design of a capacity building program for schools to make use of public health and education data to inform school reopening; provision of safety kits including learning and teaching materials for selected schools participating in the pilot face to face schools (see photo, at right); and support to DepEd’s communication and contingency plan. Of particular importance to the quality of instruction in the new classroom set up is providing teachers with portable microphones and voice amplifiers so that teachers can speak at a normal range, and all children can hear the lesson despite the presence of masks and protective barriers. After the pilot face-to-face, USAID will continue to provide support to DepEd in its holistic effort for Pandemic Response (Pilot Phase), Recovery (Phase 2), and the New Normal and Beyond COVID-19.
Remote learning in the Philippines
Over the course of the 2020–2021 school year in the Philippines, when instruction for all grades was delivered remotely, researchers from the All Children Reading–Philippines project followed 20 schools and families across the country to understand their experience with teaching and learning during school closures. The study involved surveys and interviews with the same set of participants at three separate times during the year: the school head, two teachers (a Grade 1 and a Grade 3 teacher), and four families and students. In June, a review of the data indicated that there had been many impressive achievements in teacher and parent (or other home learning partner) efforts to keep children learning. However, parents were also eager to have children back in front of a teacher because they felt that (1) teachers are more effective than parents in teaching, (2) teachers can better monitor and support children’s learning, and (3) it is better for children to learn together. They recommended face-to-face schooling but with limited numbers per classroom, and at least one or two days per week pending a full reopening.
Direct instruction and feedback through contact time with the teacher is especially critical for foundational learning in the earliest grades, when children are still learning how to learn, especially learning to read. Almost 60% of teachers in our study (22 of the 37 teachers) were unable to connect with learners in person by the end of the school year, while 40% of teachers visited learners at various and sometimes inconsistent frequencies. Assessment of student performance was also one of the greatest challenges that teachers reported in our study. Many teachers expressed their frustration in not knowing how their students are progressing. For example, some teachers were not able to make home visits and were not providing online instruction – two of the most common ways to gauge progress. With only the students’ learning activity sheets to evaluate, they could not listen to their students read nor ask them comprehension questions.
I cannot ask my learners to read. I don’t know who among them are readers and not. (Primary 1 to 3 [multigrade] Teacher, Basilan Province)
I wish for F2F learning so that he would have company to read. Sometimes, he cannot understand his lessons. (Parent of a Grade 3 student in Romblon Province)
Moreover, children missed their teachers, which could negatively impact their ability to work at home with their parents or independently. Even though HLPs (Home Learning Partners) discussed several positive experiences that occurred during remote learning, such as bonding with their child and a sense of satisfaction in helping them and learning themselves, many still had difficulty keeping their children sufficiently engaged to get their weekly tasks completed. According to parents, children were not always willing to listen to their parents or stop play activities for home learning, or once they started, they had difficulty staying focused and persevering to complete their work. Children showed signs of boredom, fatigue, and sadness when they did not understand their lessons or felt overwhelmed with the number of pages and activities to be completed.
The results were also shared with DepEd leadership in August and September, including the eagerness of these parents for a return to classroom instruction, as they began to deliberate whether schools would reopen or not. Briefs on topics including use of technology, student engagement, and support to home learning partners will be available soon here: Remote Learning in the Philippines During COVID [Briefs Series] | SharEd (rti.org)
How have other countries experienced the return to classroom instruction?
Recognizing that the return to classroom-based instruction is not without risk, the need to do so is real. To further support the return to face-to-face instruction, RTI organized a knowledge sharing activity among different countries about their experience reopening schools on the occasion of the 4th education forum of the Department of Education. This recurring forum is a platform to share updates of major on-going reform initiatives of the Department with development partners and a venue to inform, deliberate on and coordinate efforts and actions towards quality basic education. Staff of ACR-Philippines interviewed education stakeholders in the Kingdom of Cambodia, the Dominican Republic, Romania, the United Arab Emirates and the United States about what happened when they reopened classrooms. Representatives spoke with us about their experiences, including the preparations they have made—what worked and what did not work. They described the challenges that they have encountered and how they managed these issues (see image, below).
For example, in the Kingdom of Cambodia, Standard Operating Procedures were established by the central authorities, but school management committees along with the school health committee had responsibility for deciding if schools would reopen based on the situation in the community. In the Dominican Republic, there was also a school safety protocol issued by the government and schools gradually introduced classroom instruction in alternating shifts, including using outdoor space for instruction. In all 5 countries, high percentages of vaccination among the population, availability of testing and effective communication with parents and the community were critical to reopening. Several speakers also mentioned how important the return to schooling has been for children’s social and emotional well-being. Across all ages, school stakeholders have observed detrimental effects on students’ socialization as they return to face-to-face schooling—hesitation to play together, difficulty resolving conflict, etc. [Check out this blog to learn more about how RTI projects in Liberia, Tanzania and the Philippines have tackled SEL during school closures Promoting Social and Emotional Learning During School Closures: Why and How | SharEd (rti.org)]
Despite the excitement surrounding the pilot, we join DepEd in proceeding with caution, knowing that it will not be an easy task. Although every situation is unique, there is much to learn from the experiences of countries who have already reintroduced face-to-face learning. We hope that hearing their solutions, frameworks and strategies will support DepEd to devise locally-relevant innovations for a safe and effective return to the classroom and to anticipate the various scenarios that might come up during their own pilot.
This piece was co-written by Sarah Pouezevara, Phil De Leon and Maricel Fernandez.