Special Report: Distance learning harmed students’ learning, behavior (Last of three parts)

THE learning and behavioral health of children suffered after more than two years of modular instruction due to the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic, noted public school teachers in Cebu who agree that the Department of Education (DepEd) made the right call to order the return to full face-to-face classes.

After full in-person classes returned on Nov. 2, 2022, public school teachers now hope for an improvement in their students’ performance.

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Learning poverty

Public school teachers in the cities of Cebu, Talisay, Mandaue and Lapu-Lapu found some of their students from various grade levels suffering from “learning poverty” when they returned to school at the start of the limited face-to-face classes in August.

Learning poverty, according to the World Bank, means being unable to read and understand short, age-appropriate texts by the age of 10.

Zenaida Abrasada, principal II of Sta. Rosa Elementary School in Olango Island, Lapu-Lapu City, told SunStar Cebu that she and her fellow teachers had been tackling the problem of “learning poverty” among their students after they noticed that some of the students had difficulty reading at their level.

“We have to really focus on improving their reading capability since we can’t expect their parents to help them in that aspect,” Abrasada said.

Abrasada said they found that their students were also behind when it came to mathematics and writing, especially in the lower grade levels.

Juliet Diaz, a Grade 4 teacher of the school, said addressing the learning problems of their students after the two-year hiatus on in-person classes had become a headache for her and her fellow teachers.

She said some of her students could not identify the sounds of the alphabet when she reviewed their lessons with them.

Abrasada said the learning crisis of some students, not just in the lower years but also in Grade 5, had worsened during the pandemic.

Diaz, however, said they have been conducting remedial readings among the students who fell behind in proficiency in reading in accordance with the guide provided by the DepEd.

Diaz said 11 of her 36 students are considered non-readers or frustrated readers.

The educators said they were aware of circumstances wherein some parents or guardians were too busy at work to guide their children in answering the modules used during the distance learning setup, or may have had no knowledge at all about the subjects.

Abrasada said another reason students are falling behind in their lessons is that some parents answered the modules themselves without teaching their children.

Abrasada and Diaz said when the limited face-to-face classes started last August, some of their students were not able to adjust at first but were excited about and interested in the return of face-to-face classes and did not want to miss the classes.

Dr. Melissa Torrefiel, a master teacher 1 from the Talima Elementary School in Barangay Talima, also on Olango Island, saw the same problem, especially in her Grade 6 students.

Torrefiel said some of the Grade 6 students lacked focus when it came to reading as a result of the two-year hiatus in in-person classes due to the pandemic.

To improve the students’ performance, Torrefiel said she and her fellow teachers dedicated at least three hours of their free time daily to provide “reading intervention” to their students.

Torrefiel said since their school was still implementing blended learning sessions every week, they often allocated their free time after their sessions to improve their students’ reading.

She added that they were also conducting reading interventions to students on Saturdays from Oct. 1 to Dec. 3 this year.

Cebu, Talisay too

In Cebu City, students in some schools such as the Malubog Integrated School (MIS) in Barangay Malubog were found to struggle when reading, even if they were in the higher grade levels.

Sonia Cogtas, school head of MIS, discovered the learning deficiencies of some of her students when their teacher tasked them to read some of their lessons individually.

Cogtas believes that the distance learning implemented for two years at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic had been disadvantageous to their students.

Cogtas said some of their students were not able to learn from their modules because their parents were either too busy at work to teach them or were not educated.

Eamon Alido, principal of the Talisay City National High School (TCNHS), shared Cogtas’ observations, saying his school now has a lot of struggling readers including some who are already in high school.

“We did not deny the fact that there is a zone of proximal development. At the time that the child is learning, the teacher, the parent or the tutor should be there to guide him or her. But the pandemic disrupted that. So those who were on Grade 5 just before the two-year hiatus began, remained at their learning level when they entered Grade 7,” Alido said in a mix of English and Tagalog.

Angeline Abella, a Grade 3 teacher in MIS, said they prefer to have the students come to the classroom five times a week so they can help them with their learning, especially in reading comprehension.

TCNHS teacher Marvin Pacaña shared the view on distance learning’s negative effects on the students’ academic performance.

“We can’t avoid that there are some competencies that they cannot master, which is very important for their foundation,” said Pacaña.

Learning loss

In Mandaue City, DepEd Mandaue City Division Supt. Nimfa Bongo said her teachers have been conducting intervention since the beginning of the school year after noticing that some students were experiencing “learning loss,” particularly when it came to reading and writing.

Learning loss, according to the Glossary of Education Reform, refers to any specific or general loss of knowledge and skills or to reversals in academic progress, most commonly due to extended gaps or discontinuities in a student’s education.

Though learning loss can manifest in a wide variety of ways for a variety of reasons, they often occur in several situations such as during summer break or when students take extended breaks in their education during the summer; when students experience significant interruptions in their formal education for a wide variety of reasons; and if a student returns to school after dropping out for an extended period of time, among others.

Some students in Mandaue City, especially in the high school level, couldn’t even read in either English or Filipino.

Dr. Joyce Diano Quizeo, principal of the Paknaan National High School in Mandaue City, said her teachers reported to her that their students may have taken for granted the modular sessions they took during the two-year break from in-person classes.

“We were able to catch those students after we found that they didn’t really answer their modules,” Quizeo told SunStar Cebu.

She revealed that there is a Grade 11 student who has difficulty reading.

As of Sept. 30, Quizeo said, they had at least 672 students from Grades 7 to 10 with reading gaps or considered frustrated readers in Filipino in the first quarter of the school year while 798 students were considered frustrated readers in English.

Introverted students

James Padron, head teacher of Pagsabungan National High School in Mandaue City, said they seemed to be starting from scratch as they observed that students had become introverts after the two-year break.

“They had less participation when it came to their classes. We noticed that they seemed awkward,” Padron told SunStar Cebu, adding that the students eventually adjusted two months into the school year.

Padron said they also had students who found it difficult to read in English and Filipino, particularly those enrolled in Grade 7.

Parents’ participation

To address learning loss among their students, Bongo said parents must participate in guiding their children when it comes to reading.

“They really need the help of the parents to support them in learning how to read,” Bongo said.

Torrefiel said it is not just the teachers who have to work full time to help their students address their academic deficiencies.

Torrefiel lamented that during the two-year break, some parents didn’t personally guide their children in their academics. And they are doing the same thing now.

“Some parents just ignore their children’s academic needs just like when we still used the modules before. That is why we have so many non-readers, because the parents don’t follow up. That is probably because some parents are too focused working and earning a living,” Torrefiel said.

Lack of learning materials

To add to the problems of teachers in educating their students, school officials in the region disclosed that majority of the public schools also lack the relevant learning materials.

Alliance of Concerned Teachers-Central Visayas president and public school teacher Antonia

Lim told SunStar Cebu that the DepEd’s learning materials need to be revised, emphasizing they have teachers complaining that some textbooks contain activities that are too difficult for students to learn.

Aside from outdated learning materials, some schools such as those in Olango Island in Lapu-Lapu City don’t have enough learning materials.

Abrasada revealed that some grade levels lack textbooks after these got wet and could no longer be used after Typhoon Odette (Rai) hit them last December.

Diaz told SunStar Cebu that until now her students have to share one book for each of the eight subjects.

But Abrasada said they already reported the situation to the DepEd, and they are using the

excess modules from the last school year while waiting for the agency’s feedback.

DepEd Central Visayas Director Salustiano Jimenez did not deny that some of its learning materials need an upgrade, stressing the need for a constant change in the curriculum to fit every generation of students.

“As of now, there are other materials that are not that effective if you use them this time, especially in terms of technology. We need TV sets, projectors and dustless chalks. Some students are now allergic to chalk dust,” said Jimenez.

He also encouraged parents to enroll their children early so they could properly estimate the

budget needed for learning materials and other school needs.

“Some schools, for example, have 200 students, but the budget is only for 100 students. We will need to secure funds to address the excess number of students enrolled after the cut-off, but we could not tell them not to enroll because schools should be accessible for all learners,” said Jimenez.

Bridging the gap

Teachers now have to help their students catch up with some of the important lessons they missed out on at the height of the pandemic.

Cogtas and Alido both said their teachers are putting in extra efforts by conducting remedial classes for students identified as struggling learners.

These students who have classes in the morning will stay in school for an extra hour so the teachers can conduct tutorials for them, said Cogtas.

Alido also said their school has allocated additional funds for the purchase of reading materials to improve the comprehension of the students.

At the Talima Elementary School, Abrasada said they extended their classes for an hour in the afternoon or until 5 p.m. during weekdays for remedial readings intended for the identified students.

To follow up on their students’ performance, Diaz said the school has tasked a group of teachers who are expected to visit one sitio in their barangay every Saturday and find if there are some students there who need help in improving their academics.

“That has been our mission since the beginning of the school. Our students should be proficient when it comes to reading and writing. We will focus on reading first before we tackle the other subjects as there is no use teaching our students other subject matters if they can’t read or write,” Abrasada said.

At the Paknaan National High School, Quizeo said they have been conducting intensive reading remediation for those students during their modular learning, wherein they have to go to school on that day.

She said reading remediation will be conducted by the school’s learning support aid with the help of their English and Filipino teachers during their free time.

Mixed reactions

Aside from teachers, students and parents also welcomed the return to full face-to-face classes.

Samantha Palabate, a Grade 9 student of MIS, admitted that she had a hard time understanding her lessons under the modular mode of learning.

Palabate is grateful for the return of F2F classes, especially since she can now physically see her classmates.

Louisse Zafra, a senior high school student in TCNHS, said the modular mode of learning was a challenge since it required a lot of self-learning and they could not immediately reach out to the teachers for assistance.

“So far, okay ra gyud kaayo kay two years mi nag module and karon makasabot gyud sa face-to-face kaysa sa module and maka spend pud og time sa new friends and ma approach ra dayon ang teachers,” said Zafra.

Not happy

But not all have welcomed the return to full face-to-face classes.

An office worker who asked not to be named voiced his apprehensions about sending his two children to school, especially with Covid-19 still present.

The office worker told SunStar Cebu that he was anxious when the national government announced that full face-to-face classes would resume on Nov. 2, as he and his wife are not ready to allow their children to attend face-to-face classes.

He said while his children are slowly attending limited face-to-face classes, they are closely monitored for Covid-19 symptoms whenever they get home.

“I still feel anxious whenever I send my children to school. Though my wife and I are fully vaccinated, my children are not as we are still afraid of what the Covid vaccine can do to them,” the office worker said.

DepEd Order 39, s. of 2022 allows teachers and learners who are not vaccinated against Covid-19 to attend in-person classes.

The office worker’s anxiety also stemmed from the fact that Covid-19 claimed his father’s life a few months into the pandemic.

“My father died due to Covid. If that could happen to my father, what if it happens to my kids too?” he added.

Of the 8.08 million total population of Central Visayas, 4,775,833 were fully vaccinated as of Nov. 1, of whom only 1,023,645 had received their first booster dose as of Nov. 2.

Learning crisis

Cebu’s problems with its students after two years of distance learning are not unique.

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) 2022 report on global learning poverty, the school closures and disruptions during the pandemic have caused the already deep pre-Covid learning crisis to be made even more severe.

In pre-pandemic 2019, the learning poverty rate was 57 percent in low- and middle-income countries, said the Unicef report, which now estimates this rate to have surged to 70 percent.

The learning poverty rate refers to the share of children who cannot read a simple text with comprehension by age 10.

In 2019, learning poverty in the Philippines was found to be 90.9 percent, the report said, after the Southeast Asia Primary Learning Metrics or SEA-PLM 2019 was used to test children in the subjects of reading, writing, mathematics and global citizenship in Grade 5. The results for the Grade 5 reading were used to measure learning poverty.

Except for Lao PDR, which had a 97.7 percent learning poverty rate, the other countries assessed under the SEA-PLM 2019 fared better than the Philippines with rates of 90 percent for Cambodia, 89.5 percent for Myanmar, 42 percent for Malaysia, and 18.1 percent for Vietnam.

Late to return

Filipino students have a lot of catching up to do, as the Philippines is among the last countries to return to full in-person classes.

In August 2021, Unicef said the Philippines was one of only five countries in the world that had not restarted in-person classes since the pandemic began in March 2020.

Unicef Philippines Representative Oyunsaikhan Dendevnorov warned then that school closures and the enrollment of students in distance learning would have consequences – “learning loss, mental distress, missed vaccinations, and heightened risk of dropout.”

Dendevnorov added that “children who fall behind in learning during the early years often stay behind for the remaining time they spend in school, and the gap widens over the years.”

This has implications for the child’s future earnings, the official said.

Unicef chief of education Robert Jenkins stressed that reopening schools is not enough.

In its 2022 education recovery report, Unicef recommended that all children be given intensive support to catch up on lost learning; that services for students in school be tailored to meet their learning, health, psycho-social and other needs; and that teachers be supported to address their students’ learning losses.

The question is whether the DepEd, struggling even to meet the needs for classrooms, chairs, teachers and learning materials, can provide such support to the country’s schools—or whether it will again leave teachers to their own devices to spend for the remedial education of their students.

Addressing gaps

On Wednesday, Nov. 2, DepEd 7 Director Jimenez said the approach to addressing the learning and behavioral gaps would have to be based on the situations in the various locations.

He said this was to ensure that school division officials could focus on implementing effective ways to improve the students’ learning within their jurisdiction.

“Though this is not the best strategy or approach... because it differs, like the culture itself, even though in Central Visayas, the culture in Bohol is different from Negros,” Jimenez told SunStar Cebu.

“It would be dependent... so as to learning loss, introvertness still also differs... so there should be varied strategies that we need to implement,” he said.

Among all learning problems, Jimenez acknowledged that students’ poor reading ability was the most common.

In the recent Regional Management Committee meeting with all regional education heads held last Oct. 28 to 29, Jimenez said apart from preparations for the full face-to-face classes, one of their main discussions was about students’ poor reading skills, particularly from kindergarten to Grade 3.

Jimenez said some children in the region in these grade levels have trouble reading and have poor reading comprehension.

“This group really needs our focus, especially on reading... It seems that this problem has hit with the two school years that we didn’t have face-to-face classes... so the children, in turn out, have reached Grade 3. And it seems they are not yet old enough to read well... some who can read cannot understand what they’ve read,” said Jimenez.

He assured all superintendents are studying all the possible ways to ensure improvement in students’ reading ability.

He added that the national government planned to implement a national reading program nationwide around January to address this problem.

For the region’s initiative, Jimenez said they, as much as possible, make sure teachers will focus on instruction delivery among their students by providing them with a prototype lesson plan.

With the prototype lesson plans, teachers would not have to write their own lesson plans and just follow a guide given to incorporate in their day-to-day lessons.

He also said he encouraged school heads to cooperate with their local government units and put in a learning management system (LMS), an online platform that enables the delivery of materials, resources, tools and activities to students both in and out of the classroom environment.

He said LMS must be stored in a learning resource center in schools or at the school library. In this way, teachers would not be burdened with making learning materials and could focus more on their students.

School heads and advisers are also provided with a manual of instructional supervision for them to be guided on what aspects to observe and what objectives are ideal to set for their teachers, said Salustiano.

He added they always conduct local assessments to check on students’ competencies that need to be developed further.

“The assessment is our way for our teachers and school heads to track some possible lessons or remediation so that all those not mastered competencies will also be mastered eventually,” said Jimenez.

New normal

In March this year, Unicef Executive Director Catherine Russell called on the world to strive for “a new normal.”

“Even before the pandemic, the most marginalized children were being left behind. As the pandemic enters its third year, we can’t afford to go back to ‘normal.’ We need a new normal: children into classrooms, assessing where they are in their learning, and providing them with the intensive support they need to recover what they’ve missed, and ensuring that teachers have the training and learning resources they need,” said Russell.

It’s a tall order.

But “the stakes are too high to do anything less,” Russell said. “When the world fails to educate its children, we all suffer.” (with CTL, JKV)