A contributed photo shows teachers preparing paper modules for distribution.

(This report was made possible with support from the Philippine Press Institute (PPI)-HSF under its 2021 Fellowship Program on Civic Journalism.)

The Philippines recently allowed limited face-to-face classes in select areas all over the country on November 15. According to national news outlets, around 120 schools were chosen to conduct a “pilot test” of face-to-face learning.

The country was also the last in the world to allow face-to-face learning amidst the global pandemic. And even when classes resumed, only a carefully selected batch of schools could start classes again.

The nationwide pilot test came as good news to many teachers, students, and parents who have been toiling away with modules, online classes, and even radio-based learning for some. To many, this re-opening meant that their children would get the attention they needed to learn and complete their daily tasks.

Photos taken in October 2020. Parents pick up modules from their children’s schools. (Photo by Patricia Laririt)

However, the same could not be said for Palawan. No schools from the island province were able to make the cut to be part of the nationwide pilot test. Although Schools Division Superintendent (SDS) Roger Capa of the Palawan DepEd division office, they are waiting for the second batch of pilot tests.

In a survey conducted by the DepEd after school year 2020-2021 ended, it was discovered that senior high school and Kindergarten to Grade Three students had the most difficulty adjusting to non-face-to-face learning.

“Kasi kapag Kindergarten talaga, kailangan na andoon talaga ang teacher. So ang nangyayari diyan ay inaasa na lang sa mga magulang, so hindi lahat ng mga magulang, lalo na ‘yong mga nasa malalayong lugar ay alam kung paano ituro. Kagaya ng mga sounds, numeracy skills, doon tayo nagkakaroon ng challenge,” Capa said in an interview.

“Sa senior high school talaga, nahihirapan sila sa on-the-job-trainee. Kasi iba talaga kapag andoon ka talaga, mapa-praktis mo ang iyong natutunan. Eh kung walang OJT, hindi mapa-practice. Mayroon naman ngayon na online OJT, pero iba pa rin ‘yong andoon talaga,” he added.

No school from the MIMAROPA region made it to the pilot test. The requirements to be a part of the pilot test were plenty, such as endorsements by local government units, proximity to a barangay health unit.

Even before the pandemic struck, Palawan schools faced many challenges to learning. From frequent blackouts, slow Internet connection, and inaccessibility of some schools, these were daily realities that teachers and students would face as they transitioned to non-face-to-face learning.

Teachers, students adapt to distance learning

Teachers prepare the week’s paper modules for parents to pick up. (Contributed photo)

When the pandemic struck in 2020 and schools were ordered closed in March that year, teachers had to figure out how they would finish their tasks with only a few days left to the school year. Mylene Aquino, a senior high school (SHS) Filipino teacher at the Palawan State University Laboratory High School (PSU-LHS), said that she had no idea at all how to conduct her class online at first.

“Noong March [2020], nagsimula ang pandemic, na-suspend muna ang classes. Ang akala naming lahat, one week lang ‘yon. Excited pa silang umuwi noong time na ‘yon. Hindi namin alam na hindi na kami magkikita-kita ulit [in person],” she said in an interview.

“Hindi talaga ako techie noong una. Bar phone lang ang gamit ko noon. Nag-ask pa ako ng tulong sa students ko kung paano gumamit ng mga platforms,” she added.

Teacher Mylene added that eventually she learned how to use technology to continue her duties. In October 2020, she welcomed her Grade 11 batch online, and until now, she still advises that class online. She said that after almost two years of doing online classes, she has learned how to be compassionate and extend as much empathy as possible towards her students.

Filipino teacher Mylene Aquino sits at her workdesk, which she also shares with her two children, who are in Kindergarten and Grade 1. (Photo by Patricia Laririt)

“Sa online, minsan feeling ko wala akong kausap. Kailangan talaga ng extension ng pasensya minsan,” she said.

“Minsan napapaisip din ako kung okay pa ba ako. Pero iniisip ko, kung ako nahihirapan, eh mas lalo na ang mga estudyante ko,” she added.

For Kindergarten teacher Claire Santoyo, it was no different. In the middle of the last quarter of the school year also at PSU-LHS, she also wondered how she would teach her little ones without meeting them in person. For an age group that requires the physical presence of a teacher, Teacher Claire had to be creative and find the best ways to keep her little ones on their toes.

“Dati medyo magulo pa kasi ang daming glitches pa sa Google Classroom. Ngayon, may improvements na. Mayroon din kaming mga offline tasks katulad ng drawing, coloring, at writing,” she said.

“Ngayong school year, in-adapt na rin namin ang mga nakita naming best practices para sa online learning. Noong una, ni-require pa namin ang mga parents na huwag nilang hahayaang mag-isa ng mga anak nila habang nasa online class. Ngayon, more or less, kaya na nila, hindi tulad last year na may mga umiiyak pang mga students,” she added.

Both teachers said that even with all the conveniences brought about by distance learning tools, they often found themselves more exhausted and drained as usual. This was attributed to the time spent preparing learning materials to suit a non-face-to-face setup.

Students, parents grapple with slow Internet and blackouts

Jaycze Dador, a Grade 12 student at PSU-LHS and taking up the ABM strand, entered his first year in senior high school amidst the global pandemic. Already in his second year into distance learning, he said that he struggles most with slow Internet connection, expensive prepaid data, and blackouts, since his class is 100 percent online.

Just like the teachers, Jaycze said that even though he would be staying at home all day to attend his classes, their workload seemed to be more burdensome than they thought.

“Sa bahay kasi namin, sa Barangay Irawan, mahina talaga ang Internet connection doon. Wala pa kasing Fibr doon ang PLDT, kaya prepaid lang ang gamit namin. Dagdag din iyon sa mga expenses. Kapag brownout, excused naman kami sa class, pero kailangang may proof pa kami. Nagpapadala pa kami ng mga video na sine-switch namin ang ilaw, para makita na brownout talaga,” he said.

Jaycze’s mother, Christine, said that she has no worries over her son’s performance in school. However, she does get worried that Jaycze has too much screen time due to his online classes. And even though Jaycze still stays in touch with his classmates, she also worries if two years of distance learning will affect his social development.

“Nakukulangan pa rin kami. Maganda pa rin ang face-to-face talaga. Hindi naman kami sobrang worried, kasi alam namin matatapos din ito[ng pandemic]. Pagdating ng social life ng bata, marami kasing skills na nade-develop kapag andoon sila outside, hindi ‘yong lagi silang nasa laptop. Kaya, ‘yon din ang aking worry, na sana hindi maapektuhan ang social skills ng bata,” said Christine.

On the other hand, distance learning gave another student a surprising advantage due to her current circumstances. Justin Napuar, who is in Grade 11 at Maryugon National High School, said that distance learning gave her an opportunity to pursue her dream of becoming a teacher. She is now 29 years old with a three-year-old child, Jeus Jude, and a husband who funds her studies.

“Nag graduate ako noong 2010. Noong time na ‘yon, wala kasing magpapaaral sa akin [sa college]. Ngayon, kaya na kasing pabayaan ang anak ko, kaya nag-desisyon ako na itong taon mag-aaral na ako ulit,” she said.

“Gusto ko talagang makapagtapos [ng kolehiyo] para matulungan ko ang mga magulang ko. Nagtitinda lang sila ng iced candy. Pero ngayon na tag-ulan, mahina ang kita nila,” she added.

Justin also struggles greatly with slow Internet connection and frequent blackouts, since she lives in a rural barangay. She also has to be her son’s teacher, who is in daycare. Lucky for her, her son is a fast learner.

“Mabuti na lang itong anak ko e madali lang turuan. At kung may hindi naman siya naiintindihan, nagpapatulong naman ako sa teacher niya,” she said.

“Hindi naman siya nagkukulang [sa social interaction] kasi nandiyan naman ang mga pinsan niya,” she added.

Inaccessibility issues in an indigenous community

Even in a highly urbanized setting like Puerto Princesa City, there are still a number of schools that are challenged not by poor Internet signal or frequent blackouts. For some rural communities, the weather could dictate whether or not a child will receive unhampered and continuous learning.

A one-and-a-half hour drive from the city center northward will take you to Barangay Concepcion, one of Puerto Princesa’s rural villages whose residents are known for the colorful flowers being sold by the roadside and the fisherfolk who live by the sea.

It is also home to the Batak people, an indigenous group living deep in the forests just off the national highway. On a good day, one can hire a 4×4 vehicle and cross several rivers to visit their hamlet.

Teachers travel to the Batak village to deliver paper modules. (Photo by Grace Marinay)

But on a rainy day, it becomes a life-and-death situation. Nearby residents lament having to push several vehicles out of the river after getting stuck. One resident said that the city DepEd’s car even got stuck in the river en route to the Batak community to deliver modules.

According to Rica Gupo, a Batak community leader and mother of four, their village has a total of 59 students. Because their village does not have cellular reception, modules would be delivered from the city proper once a week to the elementary school to be picked up by the parents.

Batak community members holding paper modules. (Photo by Grace Marinay)

“Tuwing Lunes, maghahatid sila [teachers] dito ng mga modules. Uwian kasi sila, hindi sila nagse-stay doon sa school,” Rica said.

Waiting out the pandemic

Time can only tell when face-to-face learning will be allowed again in Palawan. Even in an urban setting, challenges abound. With no end yet in sight, teachers, students, and parents are left with no choice but to patiently wait for the DepEd to allow limited face-to-face classes. Despite low and expensive prepaid Internet, frequent blackouts, and long hours spent preparing modules, everyone is determined to make it through another school year.

Teacher Claire admitted that she misses her students. Because young children need physical interactions to learn, she said no amount of innovations can replace in-person learning.

“Ang mga bata, kailangan mo minsan hawakan para ma-assist sila sa learning nila. Halimbawa, kapag medyo hindi na sila nakikinig. Walang ganoon sa online class,” she said.

Teacher Mylene also said that mental health issues often plague her students, and thus she has to extend even more understanding and empathy as possible. She has even made their homeroom class a one-on-one activity, where students can talk to her online for an hour, just to vent or talk to someone.

“Ang homeroom class ko ay ginawa kong one-on-one, hindi na ‘yong traditional na as a class. Minsan, kailangan lang talaga nila ng kausap. Lagi kong sinasabi na mahalaga ang kumustahan,” she said.

Even those in places most difficult to reach, education remains a priority. Rica often tells her son Marvin, a Grade 9 student, to ask for help from his relatives when he struggles with his lessons. Attaining the highest level of education possible is very important for the older generation of Bataks, who did not have similar opportunities in their youth.

“Ako kasi hindi ko talaga kaya na turuan siya. Grade 4 lang kasi ang tinapos ko, ‘yan ang lagi kong sinasabi kay Marvin. Kapag nahihirapan siya, nagpapatulong siya sa teacher niya o kaya sa mga pinsan niya,” she said.

“Hirap talaga kami, Ma’am, hindi namin talaga alam ‘yan,” another Batak woman who joined the interview chimed in.

The struggles of students, teachers, and parents face are not equal. Some struggle more than others. But because of numerous requirements, schools in Palawan remain closed. Local education officials can only patiently wait for the pandemic to end or for the national government to allow face-to-face learning.

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is a senior reporter for Palawan News who covers politics, education, environment, tourism, and human interest stories. She loves watching Netflix, reading literary fiction, and listens to serial fiction podcasts. Her favorite color is blue.