In the Philippines, it was reported that for school year 2020-2021 (“the pandemic school year”) around three (3) million learners opted not to enroll or continue their education at the basic education level. For context, this number is almost equal to the entire population of Quezon City (2.94 Million), a highly urbanized city in Metro Manila. This happened despite the massive enrollment and registration drive undertaken by schools and the fact that the school year opening was moved back to four months from June to October. For these students, the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to take a “gap year.” In the time of COVID-19, the policy of “no student left behind” is more an ideal than a reality.
The causes of this forced “gap year” are obvious. The shift to remote or distance learning modalities through self-learning modules and online classes, coupled with the paradox of high price yet slow speed internet connectivity in the country, puts a strain on the capacity of families to shoulder the added costs for this mode of education. Although the effect may vary across segments of society, it is clear is that some households are just not prepared, and without means, to catch up with this sudden digital transformation. According to a discussion paper by the Philippine Institute for Development Studies (PIDS), only 1 per cent of poor households, 6 per cent of low income households and 27 per cent of lower middle-income households, respectively, have computers. This is further aggravated by the effect of pandemic measures such as lockdowns and community quarantines on employment and business. In July 2020, the unemployment rate in the Philippines was at the rate of 10 per cent, twice the rate for the same month last year. In April 2020, the rate was as high as 17.7 per cent. Among the workers most affected are those in the informal sector, minimum wage earners and workers in a no-work, no-pay arrangement. The pre-pandemic conditions of job insecurity and a digital divide skewed heavily against the poor are the key ingredients for an educational system ravaged by the pandemic.
Unfortunately, interventions to address these issues fell short and children were left behind as the school year started. Now, the way forward is to move on from this gap year, learn from the policy pitfalls and provide for opportunities, programs and policies for these children to make the next school year their “bounce-back” year. The proposals presented here are mechanisms that the education sector itself may readily implement. The goal is to enable these learners to seamlessly return to school and if possible, offset the effects of the gap year on their overall educational advancement.
One policy worth considering is the implementation of a rolling enrollment or admissions program. This means that enrollment should not be allowed only for a limited period of time before the start of school year. Schools must be able to accept students even after Day 1 or even Month 1 of the classes. The rationale for this is that as businesses and industries reopened and work resumed after the strict community quarantine but already days or months after school opening, the families of affected students would have regained their source of income and/or saved enough funds to finance their children’s education. Returning students, especially those who show proof of economic hardship as a cause for dropping out, must be accepted year-round and allowed to use the summer break (usually March to June) to accomplish all the required learning outcomes and competencies. If self-paced learning turned out to be unsuccessful due to the limited time for these late enrollees, remediation, enhancement and advancement classes can then be offered by schools during the summer break and the next school year to allow students to advance and be promoted to the next grade level.
As a temporary measure, local school boards must be granted flexibility in the utilization of the Special Education Fund (SEF) for purposes of addressing this “gap year” problem, such as the procurement of electronic gadgets and funding support for additional remediation classes to be distributed to poor non-enrollees conditioned on their re-enrollment . As advisory committees to the local sanggunian (legislative councils), these boards must take a primary role in formulating and recommending ordinances, policies and guidelines tailor-made to the specific educational needs of the community.
Since lessons are delivered through printed modules and remote means (synchronously and asynchronously), access to these modules, materials, audio/video recordings of classes etc. must be given to non-enrollees. Printed modules may be deposited in barangay or community centers for borrowing, photocopying and/or distribution to these non-enrollees and other out-of-school youth. Alternatively, these may be uploaded in a website similar to the existing online platform DepEd Commons, but without need for login credentials tied to current school enrollment to ensure public accessibility.
The Alternative Learning System (ALS) of the Department of Education (DepEd) must be strengthened and broadened to be able to accommodate the thousands, if not millions, of non-enrollees from this school year (and the next, if pandemic conditions persist). Of particular importance are those non-enrollees who are slated to graduate this school year and advance to high school or college level. The ALS Accreditation & Equivalency Test, which certifies the test passers with competencies comparable with formal education graduates, must be expanded to cater to these students.
Lastly, on the side of policy-making, in its “Basic Education Learning Continuity Plan in the Time of COVID-19” the DepEd must take into consideration the special circumstances of these gap year students. The agency must chart a concrete plan to ensure that they will go back to school next year without discrimination, unequal treatment and any other inconvenience or unfavorable circumstance. Although a Learning Continuity Plan is mentioned the Oplan Balik Eskwela (Oplan “Back to School”) program, this Plan is only provided for time-bound implementation, i.e. until August 29, 2020. This is not enough. This program must continue until the three million “gap year” students are accounted for and provided with pathways to return to school.
Learning continuity must not be foregrounded only by the safe reopening of schools (albeit not in a physical setting) and the resumption of classes and learning activities. These gap year students must not be condemned to the background, ignored by the government and education authorities. Their COVID-19-induced physical and economic lockdown must not spill-over into an intellectual constraint. They must not be further left behind.