Group urges government not to forget the poor, disadvantaged as school opens on October 5

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Six days before Filipino students go back to school on October 5, we at E-Net Philippines, a network of 130 organizations and partners, are calling on the government to address the needs of the poor and disadvantaged sectors for inclusive and quality education in the new normal.

While the Department of Education has reported an enrollment of 24.9 million students (representing 98% in public schools and 48% in private), there are still 3.3 million students who have yet to enroll for this school year.

The figures on the ground are alarming. Only 63,549 students with disabilities were able to enroll this year, leaving behind an estimated 3.23 million children. More than 3.5 million out-of-school-youth may not be able to avail of the Alternative Learning System (ALS) this year, as only 365,602 enrolled, according to the DepEd. Only 515,748 students have enrolled in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao as of June 2020, 42% of last school year’s enrollees, according to DepEd. “Last mile” learners, or those who live in remote areas, are also disadvantaged; with 8,013 barangays still without elementary schools, mostly located in geographically-isolated areas with peace and order problems.

Indigenous high school students from left, Erica Jugatan, Jerrick Cabalic and Jessica Jugatan, wearing their traditional costumes, with Lakas high school teacher Helen Abarra and indigenous knowledge teacher and Lakas IP community chairperson Lito “TUBAG” Jugatan, carry “Sa pagbabalik eskwela, walang dapat maisasantabi, walang maiiwan” (No learner excluded, no one left behind) posters, to highlight the numbers of learners unable to enroll this school year, during an activity at their Lakas Binawo High School in Botolan, Zambales Province, last September 27, 2020. Indigenous learners, around 2.6-million enrolled last school year 2019-2020, are among the marginalized, vulnerable and excluded sectors (MEVs) in terms of education; together with learners with disabilities, out-of-school youth, Muslim learners and those in “last mile” schools in far-flung areas. Under the New Normal brought by the coronavirus pandemic, an education advocacy group, E-net Philippines, is concerned over those learners left behind and excluded because of non-enrollment given the poverty, lack of access to technology and the internet, and health and safety concerns; as distance, blended and online classes in public school starts on October 5. (Photo from Lakas/E-Net Philippines)

We believe that the government must exert all efforts into accommodating these unenrolled students into the system to ensure that no one is left behind. This means making the government learning programs accessible to all, including students living in remote areas, those with disabilities, and out-of-school youths and adults who can benefit from the alternative learning system.

As the country grapples with the coronavirus pandemic, urgent as well as long term solutions must be adopted to address the financial, technical and legislative challenges in the education sector.

Aside from the alarming enrollment issue, the country’s education system is beset with other problems related to the pandemic, including unemployment, underemployment, lack of resources and opportunities, limited access to materials needed for distance learn- ing like internet and gadgets, lack of teachers and teacher support, safety, among others.

We, therefore, propose the following:

1. Improve the systems and mechanisms to increase the number of enrollment of out-of-school children, youth and adults, learners with disabilities (LWDs), indigenous learners, Muslim children, and learners in last-mile schools.
2. Ensure access to the internet, provisions of gadgets, mobile phone loads, printed modules, and assistive technology for those with disabilities.
3. Include the budget for a disability-specific appropriation for learners with disabilities in the Recovery Assistance Package for Higher and Technical-Vocational Education Bill.
4. Ensure safe back to school and provide financial support to teachers’ hygiene and hardship in workload. Hardship Pay and Hazard Pay should be provided to teachers and non- teaching personnel engaged in hazardous delivery of education services amid COVID-19 and even beyond this pandemic crisis.
5. Cease the mass laying off of provisional teachers and absorb retrenched teachers from private schools by the DepEd to make up for the lack of teachers in implementing blended learning, Alternative Learning Systems, and Indigenous People Education.
6. Hire trained ALS community facilitators as para-teachers to assist parents in the home-based modular learning modality.
7. Restore realigned budgets in Learning Materials for Learners with Disabilities, SPED, Last Mile Schools Program, Internet Connectivity Program, Feeding Program, and Child Protection Program.
8. Provide a specific budget for teachers’ minimum health standards requirements (e.g., PPEs) and medical benefits, especially for those afflicted with coronavirus. Allocate specific budget for module reproduction and procurement of devices.
9. Ensure equity-based education financing, like budget allocations for Alternative Learn- ing System (ALS), Indigenous Peoples’ Education (IPEd), Inclusive Education for Learners with Disabilities (IE LWD), and Muslim Education.
10. Implement no increase in tuition and miscellaneous fees in the private schools to prevent learners from dropping out of the school system.
11. Full implementation of Republic Act No. 10929 or the Free Internet Access in Public Places Act, upgrade and rehabilitate ICT infrastructure and connectivity in SUCs.
12. Correct and full implementation of the Magna Carta for Public School Teachers (RA4670).
13. Expedite the legislation of bills that ensure the right of education of marginalized sectors. Pass the bill on “Inclusive Education for Learners with Disabilities” and “Institutionalizing the Alternative Learning System for Out-of-School Youth, Adults, Persons with Disabilities, Indigenous Peoples and Other Marginalized Sectors of Society.”