Filipinos return to campus after 2.5yrs

Filipinos return to campus after 2.5yrs

Students gather outside an elementary school on the first day of classes in Quezon City, the Philippines, on Aug 22, after two-and-a-half years of online classes. BLOOMBERG
Students gather outside an elementary school on the first day of classes in Quezon City, the Philippines, on Aug 22, after two-and-a-half years of online classes. BLOOMBERG

Rediscovering face-to-face interaction and spontaneity. Navigating technology-related woes, and juggling remote and in-person classes. Facing sharp increases in living costs. Worrying if they missed out on quality education due to the Philippines' school closures during the Covid-19 pandemic, as graduation time nears.

These are a mix of Filipino students' experiences in the weeks since universities and colleges began reopening their campuses from Aug 22, 2.5 years after shutting their doors due to the pandemic in this country of more than 115 million people.

Millions of university students are back in class, whether in person, online or some mix of the two, in this Southeast Asian country that had among the longest school closures in the world.

The Philippines was also the last Asean country to reopen its schools, which had been fully closed from March 15, 2020 to Aug 22, data from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) show.

Students are excited to return to real classrooms, with mixed reactions.

Psychology major Aline Salillas, 22, is glad to be back on campus, its familiar classroom dynamics and interactions with friends at her school, Ateneo de Manila University in Quezon City.

Even the physical tiredness from travelling to and around campus is welcome to Ms Sallilas.

"At least, you're aware that you're tired," she shares.

"During online learning, you really need to set boundaries [between work/study and rest]. Although sometimes, you don't feel as if you're tired or not."

Angel Reyes, who is pursuing a degree in materials engineering, is not yet commuting regularly to the University of the Philippines, where classes started on Sept 5. This semester will remain mostly online, with some laboratory lessons and examinations in person.

"Sometimes, not being able to interact with good professors feels like such a loss," says 21-year-old Reyes.

"There was so much they could impart [to] me that I wasn't able to fully absorb, especially if they don't really record their class."

Ms Reyes is used to remote learning by now, finding technology to be friend -- and foe -- in a country where internet penetration is at 82% but is of poorer quality than several neighbouring countries.

It was an indispensable means of learning for students, but also a source of exhaustion and other distractions during classes.

HIGHER COST OF LIVING

While the Covid-19 situation has improved enough to allow a reopening of some campuses, the economic crisis that the pandemic ushered in is far from over. In fact, it has been exacerbated by rising living costs, in the wake of soaring fuel prices and global instability due to the war in Ukraine.

The country's inflation rate climbed from 3% in February to 6.4% in July, which was the highest since October 2018, the Philippine Statistics Authority reported. It eased just a bit to 6.3% in August.

The minimum fare for jeepneys, a commonly used mode of public transport, was increased by 1 to 2 pesos (0.64 to 1.28 baht) to reach 11 pesos in July. Another 1 peso-increase was announced in September, along with fare hikes for other public utility vehicles.

LOST YEARS?

Then there are the larger worries that youngsters have as they become pandemic-era university graduates, reflecting on whether the remote learning of the past two years has equipped them adequately for the future.

Senior student Samantha de Jesus, pursuing a public health degree at the University of the Philippines, feels "very unprepared" for her post-graduate choices -- which may include taking the board examination for medical technology or pursuing a degree in medicine.

Limited face-to-face laboratory work at the university restarted only from November last year.

"I realise I may be graduating soon already, and I don't think I'm ready to move on to the next chapter of working," she says.

"Along the lines of health, it can mean life or death [for future patients]."

Journalism graduate Christina Quiambao's dissatisfaction with remote learning prompted her to seek out news organisations to write for -- while completing her final year at the University of the Philippines last year -- to gain more of the skills she now uses as a digital news writer.

"Because of the drawbacks of remote learning, my mental health at work can get affected," she explains.

"You could feel down, thinking, 'do I deserve to be here, when this is just all that I know?' "

These fears are far from surprising given worries about the country's education system.

Prior to the pandemic, the Philippines had the second-highest learning poverty rate of 90.9% among nine Southeast Asian countries -- just behind Laos' 97% and Cambodia's 90%, says the World Bank's "State of Global Learning Poverty" update for 2022.

The Philippines' figure means that 90.9% of 10-year-olds in the country cannot read and comprehend a simple text.

"Those years [of remote learning] challenged how and what we think of traditional ways of teaching, which includes but is not limited to the frequency of lectures, grading systems, and requirements that gauge the students' learning status of capacities," explains arts instructor Cabrera, who teaches at the University of the Philippines.

For now, the pre-pandemic chatter of young people out and about is back in some university premises.

But remote learning is here to stay, as most universities combine online and on-site platforms. Reporting ASEAN

Rassel Meigan Rodriguez, a senior journalism student, is a contributor to Reporting ASEAN.

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