By Rosanna Montemayor, Rural Women Advocates
The suspension of face-to-face classes due to COVID-19 has caused a sudden scramble for alternative learning modalities. Last March, the Department of Education launched DepEd Commons, an online platform to guide teachers in implementing distance learning. DepEd followed up by releasing a list of Most Essential Learning Competencies (MELCs) on June 15 to support the streamlining of curricula, with a rationale citing UNESCO’s statement: “If learning stops, we will lose human capital.”1 The goal in developing the MELCs, according to its guidelines, is to promote quality, accessible, relevant, and liberating education which provides students with information that is applicable to real-life situations. Yet how feasible is DepEd’s distance learning proposal?
Some teachers or students might associate distance learning with innovation and creativity. When set against the context of peasant families, however, DepEd’s proposal is blatantly discriminatory towards those who do not even have access to basic living necessities such as clean water, food, proper shelter, or medicine. Among the numerous challenges peasant families faced during the Enhanced Community Quarantine are the drop in prices of agricultural products; mass transportation cut off; imposed curfew which has limited farm work; landfalls caused by typhoon Ambo; insufficient financial assistance from the government; and the deployment of police and military instead of the provision of mass testing and healthcare.
In a zine released by Amihan Women, Rural Women Advocates, and Gantala Press entitled Kumusta Kayo? Naratibo ng Kababaihang Magbubukid Ngayong Pandemya, various women from the peasant sector provide accounts of their day-to-day lives. One woman from Cavite, Nanay Susan, shares that she is the wife of a farmer who used to drive a tricycle in order to make ends meet.2 She explains how planting has become a challenge due to the lack of rain, how the banning of tricycles has resulted in lost income, and how her children have come to her one by one to ask for food because they are hungry. She writes, “Lugaw-lugaw lang muna. Mabuti na lang ang aming samahan ay gumawa ng paraan kung paano matutulungan ang bawat kasapi …”
Moreover, DepEd’s distance learning proposal has also affected middle and lower income families from rural areas mentally and emotionally. The suicide of a 19-year-old student from Sto. Domingo, Albay was discovered on June 16 and the victim’s mother was briefly interviewed3. The mother stated that her son had been anxious about the financial burden of his online enrollment, citing the celphone load and internet charges which would contribute to the family’s expenses. Evidently, a shift to distance learning also poses the threat of an alarming rise in mental health cases among students and parents alike.
Distance learning has proven to be inaccessible not only to students but to educators as well. On June 18, Manila Bulletin reported teachers from New Leyte Elementary School and New Leyte National High School setting up tents along a highway in Davao de Oro4. According to the article, the teachers were looking for mobile signal in order to join DepEd’s webinars that would prepare them for the August 24 resumption of classes. This is not the first report of members in the education sector going lengths to participate in formal learning; among these reports are the story of Franz Berdida, who climbed a mountain in Masbate to find signal during finals5, and Kriselyn Villance, who died in a motorcycle accident after searching for internet to submit academic requirements6.
If anything, these issues plaguing the education sector are not new, as the current pandemic has exposed the flaws in the country’s neoliberal education system which aims at producing potential contributors to the workforce. Since individuals must be quantifiable through numerical grading schemes and curricula vitae in order to be evaluated for employment, the government forces the continuity of their formal learning despite inhumane living conditions. For UNESCO and DepEd, education is indeed “human capital” because it functions to support the economy rather than to holistically develop Filipinos, resulting in a direct disregard of the students’ physical, emotional, and mental well-being.
Education is a fundamental right of every Filipino, and if DepEd is to fulfill its commitment towards quality, accessible, relevant, and liberating educational services, the government must first confront the concrete circumstances of Filipino learners, especially those from the most marginalized sectors. Instead of implementing militarization as a solution to the pandemic, the government must prioritize healthcare, free mass testing, production subsidy for farmers, and emergency cash assistance for peasant families. DepEd’s distance learning proposal is unfeasible and anti-poor in the Philippine context. Countless students will be left behind.
1. Republic of the Philippines Department of Education. “Guidelines on the Use of the Most Essential Learning Competencies (MELCs).” DepEd Commons. June 2020. commons.deped.gov.ph/MELCS-Guidelines.pdf.
2. Kumusta Kayo? Naratibo ng Kababaihang MagbubukidNgayong Pandemya. Metro Manila: Amihan National Federation of Peasant Women, Gantala Press, and Rural Women Advocates. 2020.
3. Mádrigáléjó, Andy. “Grade 8 student hangs self in Sto. Domingo, Albay.” The Philippine Examiner. June 16, 2020. http://philexaminer.com/?p=16358&fbclid=IwAR0X_rvzoyFD8Q0m5go4gIJRom7vtRUX81cn2VmxcMKz6OS5srwyXsz_fMo.
4. Capistrano, Zea. “Teachers in Davao Oro camp along highway to look for signal, join ‘new normal’ webinar.” Manila Bulletin. June 18, 2020. https://news.mb.com.ph/2020/06/18/teachers-in-davao-oro-camp-along-highway-to-look-for-signal-join-new-normal-webinar/.
5. Tiangco, Minka Klaudia. “Student climbs mountain just to submit class requirements due to unstable internet connection.” Manila Bulletin. May 5, 2020. https://news.mb.com.ph/2020/05/05/student-climbs-mountain-just-to-submit-class-requirements-due-to-unstable-internet-connection/.
6. Andrada, Dorothy. “Student death highlights need for mass promotion, groups say.” Rappler. May 16, 2020. https://www.rappler.com/move-ph/261148-student-death-highlights-need-mass-promotion-groups-say.