What does getting proper education mean when we’re facing a pandemic?

What does getting proper education mean when we’re facing a pandemic?

Inclusivity and students’ welfare should be universities’ top priority, but they seem to have been cast aside.

Art by Kitty Jardenil

 

The National Union of Students of the Philippines, an organization of student councils across different universities, has been calling for schools to end the current academic semester following the COVID-19 outbreak in the country and subsequent enhanced community quarantine in Metro Manila. The organization also urged for the mass promotion of students, including graduation clearance for eligible students and refunds of unused school fees. 

Such a decision would be the most inclusive option, as not everyone has access to alternative educational tools such as online video-call classes — people have been using the hashtag #NoStudentLeftBehind to voice out their support for the cause. 

On April 7, Ateneo de Manila University announced that the current semester has been shortened and will end on May 8. Qualified students will be cleared for graduation, and eligible non-graduating students will receive passing marks and be promoted to the next school year. The university will also issue refunds of tuition fees. 

“As someone who is used to studying in coffee shops, I found the first few weeks of home-based online learning to be difficult,” says Kirby, a student at the university. “And in a world that seemed to get crazier by the day, it was challenging to find the proper headspace to actually care about academics.”

“Beyond the matter of internet access, online classes are also just difficult to handle at this time,” adds his fellow student Annicka. “I just couldn’t get into the headspace for the workload without the normal structure of a school day — and worse, with the general public anxiety about the crisis. But the consideration of certain professors was very clear. I appreciated how some took the time to post lectures or save their class livestreams for us to learn at our own pace.” 

Kirby says that Ateneo’s decision is compassionate and humane, and supports the best interests of its students. “I absolutely agree with Ateneo’s decision to mass promote their students,” he adds. “Even if many Ateneans had the means to continue online learning, it would have been unfair to those without stable internet access to proceed with any form of graded assessments.” 

“I like how Ateneo gave us the option to take a passing grade or still continue with our classes,” Annicka says. “This was considerate of everyone’s needs at this time. They’ve also been having counselors send emails to us as a check-in, to see whether we need a counseling call or such. I’m proud of what the University has done to support both students and society.” 

The University of Santo Tomas announced that it would continue online classes until May 30 — the intended end of the semester — after the enhanced community quarantine was first extended to April 30. The advisory read, “While the University recognizes the limitations that come with teaching and learning remotely, including unstable internet access and inability to adequately teach manual skills online, the health and welfare of everyone are of primary concern.” It’s difficult to see, though, how these sentiments line up with their decision. 

“I don’t agree with my school’s decision to resume classes and requirements online,” says Pat, a student at UST. “While online classes may be accessible to some, there are still students who don’t have the same resources. Also, online lectures just don’t translate the same way it would in a classroom set-up.” 

Because classes have gone on as usual, Pat and her fellow graduating students are still obliged to fulfill their undergraduate thesis requirements, for which she says she has little to no consultation from her thesis adviser. “The memos regarding deadlines and requirements also keep changing, which is frustrating for most of us right now.” 

While other colleges in UST have done away with the need for students to defend their theses, Pat adds, “our college chose to push through despite this crisis because, [according to a professor,] ‘[capitulating] to students’ request for a later date would result in delays and laziness [on their part].’”

The University of the Philippines, meanwhile, announced that the semester would end on April 30 — but that students would receive “deferred” grades. Instead of mass promotion for qualified students, the decision has been made to postpone the grades of those who cannot submit class requirements, which they must complete within the next two semesters. Students and faculty alike have criticized the move, which has been said to leave graduating students in the air and extends the academic term instead of culminating it. 

“I didn’t understand UP’s proposed plan of action until memes were made about it,” says student Andrea. “The unnecessarily overcomplicated decision to suspend the semester without waiving class requirements is anti-student, obviously valuing grades and academics over the well-being of their constituents. So much for honor and excellence.”

“We were lucky enough to have our online classes suspended a week into ECQ,” she goes on, “but trying to finish requirements due after ECQ was a challenge. Papers I usually finish in one night took me weeks. Groupmates apologized endlessly for missing deadlines because of being too anxious to work.”

Andrea brings up a student’s tweet that mass promotion seems like a free pass when your university prides itself on being the “best.” “By dismissing the pleas of the sectoral regents and prioritizing output over possible bridging programs, the Board of Regents remain loyal not to their constituents but to the reputation UP undeservedly upholds,” Andrea says. “What good are world rankings if people are dying?”

“Online classes don’t seem to be a possibility for us [in UP],” says Patricia, another UP student. “But the BOR’s decision to defer grades will make it difficult for students and faculty in the upcoming semesters. The workload will be heavier and harder to manage, especially since we’ll be balancing it with existing requirements.”

“I don’t know why they decided on this, to be honest,” she concludes. “Mass promotion ensures that no student gets left behind. I don’t think academics should be our priority during this pandemic, when most of us are scared for our lives. Honor and excellence should go beyond school, in my opinion.”