For weeks, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has made one thing clear: there will be no “face-to-face” classes in schools until a COVID-19 vaccine is available.
Now, with the pandemic far from contained, and a vaccine likely months away at the earliest, the Philippine Department of Education (DepEd) has just two months to figure out how to provide distance learning to millions of Filipino students across the archipelago with sporadic access to the internet in time for the start of the new school year on August 24.
But given a lack of experience with mass online learning—the last school year was simply cut short by two weeks when quarantine was imposed on the main island of Luzon—observers are questioning whether they can, and whether whatever system emerges will be able to meet needs of the Philippines’ youth.
“Definitely, at this moment, we are not ready,” Raymond Basilio, a Philippine history teacher and the secretary-general of the Alliance of Concerned Teachers, told VICE News on Wednesday. “We don’t have the needed technology, needed infrastructure. We still need training for how we are going to deliver modular learning, because we are only used to classroom-based learning.”
Some signs suggest unequal access to technology is already manifesting itself. Nearly 28 million students enrolled in school last year, but two weeks into this year’s online enrollment period, less than half as many have signed up.
In an effort to remedy potential access issues, DepEd is installing dropboxes for physical enrollment forms in town halls and schools for those who can’t register online.
With the issue of spotty access to technology looming, President Duterte on Monday suggested a low-tech workaround: transistor radios.
“I would look for the money to buy transistor radios to be distributed all throughout the country,” Duterte said at a task force meeting, adding that radios purchased for PHP300 (about $6) can to be given “to all barangays [villages] that could be reached by radio so that the poor could communicate with their teachers.”
Education Secretary Leonor Briones also said that DepEd regional administrators are negotiating with local radio stations to reduce the cost of airing educational shows.
“Radio, television, online, and modular learning—which are pre-existing methods and were already used for decades—are being prepared and updated this year,” Briones said, adding that teachers are being trained on how to use “newer platforms and innovative tools.”
But students aren’t the only ones affected by an uneven level of access to technology. The Philippine Daily Inquirer on Wednesday posted a series of images showing a group of teachers sitting in and around a tent they pitched alongside a highway in an effort to get a strong enough mobile signal to tune into a DepEd webinar on the new school year.
Basilio, the teachers advocate, said he believes the situation “will just further the gap between the rich and the poor.”
“The rich will have access to technology and can hire a teacher assistant in their own homes,” he said. “And the poor will have to make up with anything that’s available.”
The DepEd, for its part, has insisted that even those lacking gadgets and internet or TV access will be able to participate in learning through printed materials, which will be delivered or placed at designated pick-up points.
They also released a 723-page abridged K-12 curriculum, and guidelines for teachers focusing only on “the most essential and indispensable competencies that learners must acquire.”
Still, Basilio said it was difficult enough for the Philippines to meet teaching standards with in-classroom education, and modular and radio-based instruction will potentially worsen existing issues.
“How are we going to discuss our lessons through radio, because there is no interaction?” he asked.
Basilio said that his position remains that the coming school year instead be declared an enrichment year “for students to make up their missed lessons over the past years.”
But despite acknowledging “all these fears [over] readiness” the DepEd’s Briones last week appeared resolved to forge ahead.
“The future will not wait and we don’t want our children to wait and be left behind,” she said.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.