What #PisoParaSaLaptop says about our education system

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A click on the hashtag using Facebook and Twitter would instantly reveal the massive number of students in need all over the country. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — When the pandemic hit the country last March, Hannah Hussin was one of the many students stranded in their respective university towns. Stuck in Zamboanga City and without a choice, she faced an abrupt shift to online learning, using only her cellphone and enduring arduous group chat interactions to finish the last three months of schooling.

Since June, Hussin has returned home, a remote town in the province of Zamboanga Sibugay where access to services is even more scarce and difficult. With the pandemic restrictions greatly hurting her father’s income as a seaweed farmer, and the new school year fast-approaching, she fears for the future of her and her six younger siblings’ education.

Hussin’s story has been a familiar tale as of recent. Through the #PisoParaSaLaptop initiative, countless number of students appealed for financial help on social media to buy a device in aid of learning. Despite feelings of shame and littleness, many sought refuge in this online campaign, firmly believing that finishing their education is their ticket to uplifting their families from poverty.

Launching an online campaign

A click on the hashtag using Facebook and Twitter would instantly reveal the massive number of students in need, from Metro Manila to far-flung communities across the regions. Their online posts, as if following a template, included basic personal details, family’s financial situation and current challenges, a valid school identification card, and a GCash account for the monetary donations.

Sometimes, a copy of grades, certification of enrollment, and photos of their medals were attached to their plea to further prove authenticity of identity, sealed with a promise that they’ll study harder and maximize the opportunity.

This call effortlessly trended last July as classes were nearing the supposed August opening of classes, springing both hope and alarm from the public. Classes are now slated to open in October.

It has also led to multiple criticisms of institutional unpreparedness and lack of support for students in public schools and state universities, where Hussin and five of her siblings are all currently enrolled for the incoming school year.

So, what are the learning methods under the pandemic? How are underprivileged students and families faring in these prototype school systems?

Shift to distance and blended learning

In preparation for the academic year 2020-2021, the Department of Education (DepEd) and the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) which cover K to 12, and colleges and universities respectively, have recommended two major learning methods: distance learning and blended learning.

To be implemented by DepEd starting October 5, distance learning means that the delivery of learning will be remote and beyond the conventional classroom set-up. During a virtual conference last May, DepEd Undersecretary Nepomuceno Malaluan explained the three approaches under this strategy, which will accommodate even those who do not have access to the internet. These included modular learning, online learning, and traditional media learning through utilization of television and radio-based instructions.

Meanwhile, blended learning, which may be applicable to college and university students, will involve a mix of distance learning and scheduled traditional on-campus classes. The tertiary education school’s opening and learning modalities will be dependent on the health situation of the area and the college or university board’s approval, according to CHED.

Despite preparations for the learning method changes, these mandates have earned criticisms, mainly from parents who continue to feel the economic brunt of the health crisis. As consistently shown in surveys and by the students in their online posts, many parents have been losing their jobs and struggling to provide daily for their families.

Barriers to quality education

For students like Hussin who live in distant, poor communities, a key challenge in coping with these arrangements is the lack of resources such as a gadget and a stable internet connection. The digital space is also an uncharted territory for most, she added. These factors make online video call sessions an unfeasible option for learning.

Hussin also observed that schools in their area have been meeting with parents who’ll share a crucial responsibility in assisting younger children given the distance learning format.

“Paano na lang ang mga nanay na walang pinag-aralan? Paano nila tuturuan ang mga anak nila?” she asked while remarking that they’re fortunate to have parents who finished at least basic education.

Hussin further stated that modular learning, wherein parents or students can either pick-up the printed modules or have it delivered to their areas, will be physically and financially grueling.

In her case, where the university is roughly eight hours away, a possible system would be to send the modules via delivery centers which are also far from her place. Getting these educational materials will entail additional resources such as time, transportation and shipment expenses, especially if to be done weekly.

"Kung may puso ka para sa bayan, huwag na huwag ka muna susuko kasi may mga mabubuting tao na kailangan lang natin mabigyan ng chance for them to reach success."

Toiling for hope and chances

Kathy Sajulga, a 21-year-old incoming third year Bachelor of Science in Computer Science student at Bohol Island State University Candijay Campus, shared similar experiences and sentiments.

For the remainder of last school year, she borrowed her neighbor’s laptop to finish school requirements. Sajulga also used her cellular phone and persevered with group chat participation. She personally paid an estimated total of ₱840 for three months of mobile data to attend her classes and submit assignments.

Sajulga disclosed that her father who works as a PUV driver had to stop labor from March to June. Now that he’s returned to work, he makes around ₱300 for two days-worth of trips, a much lower income compared to his earnings prior to the pandemic.

This pushed Sajulga, the eldest of three siblings, and her mother to start selling native delicacies so they can fund their basic and incoming schooling needs. Although they are earning from this business venture, the savings have not been enough.

Because of this, Sajulga, who took two summer jobs last year to support her and her siblings’ schooling, tried to find work again in the past months. She failed to get a gig given the pandemic, leading her to almost defer studies for a year if she wasn’t stopped by her parents.

Like Hussin, the dire situation has pushed Sajulga to resort help online this August.

Transforming community struggles

But not all is lost amid these learning divides.

A few weeks ago, the #PisoParaSaLaptop posts caught the attention of a young, corporate professional who intentionally browsed Twitter to destress. But overwhelmed and bothered by these appeals, she ended up rapidly building an idea to address the gap.

On August 1, Diane Reyes created the private Facebook group #AyudaPangEskwela, an initiative which links students in need to potential donors, and empowers them into transitioning toward the current learning set-ups.

Through an organized and transparent school-themed system, the group has raised ₱2,637,461.80 and helped 542 students from communities in the National Capital Region to provinces such as Pampanga, Bohol, and Davao within 31 days.

Building trust with beneficiaries and donors is key, Reyes shared, as they converse with each student or parent, who act as representatives for minors, requesting for financial aid. Together, they level expectations and set target amounts for gadgets needed.

Once this is determined, #AyudaPangEskwela posts needs and gadget fulfillment by batch to allow more airtime for beneficiaries and to monitor the donations. The fastest batch fulfillment rate is two to three days.

“Maliit na bagay pero para sa akin walang maliit na bagay sa tulong kasi hindi mo mabubuo ‘yun [gawain] kung hindi ka natulungan,” shared Daisy Caspe, a mother of a student beneficiary from the earlier batches. “Nabigyan nila ng mga pag-asa [‘yung mga bata] ngayong pandemic na matututo ka pa rin.”

With the nature of operations and increase in public exposure, #AyudaPangEskwela has also been experiencing online disinformation. Reyes said that there are at least nine fake groups and pages which have copied their name and artwork.

The initiative has since actively implemented stricter measures to protect member security and the group’s cause. This is where Ayuda Pang Eskwela Kabataan, whose volunteers are successful student beneficiaries from the first two batches, helps in verifying accounts, keeping documentation, and assisting current and upcoming beneficiaries in the group.

For Reyes, these acts of paying it forward, which she consistently witnesses from collaborating with students, parents, and donors have been a driving force to continue their work.

“Dito mo ma-rerealize, hindi ka talaga dapat sumuko sa Pilipinas,” said Reyes. “Kung may puso ka para sa bayan, huwag na huwag ka muna susuko kasi may mga mabubuting tao na kailangan lang natin mabigyan ng chance for them to reach success. And eventually, they will grow to be really good people and pay it forward.”

Testing institutional response

As of writing, Hussin and Sajulga are still waiting for final announcements from their universities regarding the learning set-up and policies for the students once classes open this September. Both, without much success in sourcing funds through the #PisoParaSaLaptop campaign, are exploring other ways to acquire gadgets for their and their siblings’ studies.

In separate public appearances, President Rodrigo Duterte and Vice President Leni Robredo previously expressed doubt over the country’s readiness for distance learning, given the limitations with tools and internet access, especially of distant towns like Hussin’s and Sajulga’s.

Duterte, however, said that the government will aid in procuring gadgets. Robredo suggested that barangay internet hubs be established for students to use in online learning, a call heeded by the Pasig City local government.

DepEd Secretary Leonor Briones has since maintained that offline modalities will be utilized given this concern. The department also launched “Handang Isip, Handa Bukas National Readiness Kick-off” to support educators, parents, and learners in the transition.

The program showcased 10 schools across different regions that have conducted dry-runs for a localized implementation of learning. DepEd added that psychosocial first aid and explanation of learning models will be part of this school year’s first week of classes orientation.

Other preparation efforts include CHED’s partnership with the Department of Information and Communications Technology to train teachers for distance learning, and Robredo’s recently released Bayanihan E-skwela, an online series aimed at guiding education stakeholders with the new learning formats.

But Hussin, who joined multiple online groups to look for scholarship and funding opportunities before posting online, wishes that things would go back to normal, where face-to-face classes are accessible, as distance learning isn’t suitable in the long-term for poverty-stricken and remote communities such as hers.

Now a 22-year-old incoming third year Bachelor of Science in Community Development student at Western Mindanao State University Main Campus, she is awaiting how schooling will turn out, given the changes.

Hussin dreams of becoming a policewoman someday so she can serve the people. But living without many choices, she is willing to take on any work that may be available in the future.

“Siguro, kung ano ‘yung oportunidad na para sa akin, ‘yun tatanggapin ko,” she said, as if resigned.