As jubilant students across the globe trade in Zoom classes for classrooms, millions of children in the Philippines are staying home for the second year in a row, fanning concerns about a worsening education crisis in the country.
The countryâ€™s president, Rodrigo Duterte, has justified keeping elementary schools and high schools closed, arguing that students and their families need to be protected from the coronavirus. The pandemic has been surging in recent months as the country struggles with the Delta variant. The Philippines has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Asia, with just 16 percent of its population fully inoculated.
â€œI cannot gamble on the health of the children,â€ Mr. Duterte said in June.
The education ministry shelved plans to reopen nearly 2,000 schools, spawning a backlash among parents and students in a sprawling country with endemic poverty. Many people, particularly in remote and rural areas, do not have access to a computer or the internet at home.
Maritess Talic, 46, a mother of two, said she feared her children had barely learned anything during the past year. Ms. Talic, who works part time as a maid, said she and her husband, a construction worker, had scraped together about 5,000 pesos, or about $100, to buy a secondhand computer tablet to share with the children, ages 7 and 9. But the family â€” which lives in Imus, a working class suburb south of Manila, the capital â€” does not have dedicated internet access at home.
She said prepaid internet cards were constantly running out, sometimes in the middle of her childrenâ€™s online classes. She said she struggled to teach them science and math with her limited schooling.
â€œIt is very hard,â€ she said, adding that the children struggled to share one device. â€œWe canâ€™t even find enough money to pay our electricity bill sometimes, and now we have to also look for extra money to pay for internet cards.â€
â€œThe thing is, I donâ€™t think they are learning at all,â€ she added. â€œThe internet connection is just too slow sometimes.â€
Even before the pandemic, the Philippines was facing an education crisis, with overcrowded classrooms, shoddy public school infrastructure and desperately low wages for teachers creating a teacher shortage.
The crisis in the Philippines comes as countries across the world, including the United States, have been grappling with one of the worst disruptions of public schooling in modern history.
UNICEF, the United Nations agency for children, said in an August study that the Philippines was one of a handful of countries that had not started in-person classes since the pandemic began, undermining the right of more than 27 million students to have access to classroom education.
The school closures had negative consequences for students, said Oyunsaikhan Dendevnorov, UNICEFâ€™s representative in the Philippines. Students have fallen behind and reported mental distress. He also cited a heightened risk of drop outs, child labor and child marriage.