Learning in Lockdown

Page 1. A comic page of a single panel.
A map of the Philippines, made up of glowing screens of mobile devices. Concentric orange circles ripple out from it on a dark blue background.
Narrator: Anniversaries are usually a cause for celebration. But not this one.
March 2022 marked two years of lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic in the Philippines and much of the world. During much of these past two years, children in Manila and other high-risk areas were not allowed to spend any time outdoors at all.
When the pandemic started, my son was in the 4th grade. Now he is in the 6th grade  and is set to graduate from the grade school level. He has missed not just the usual Christmas and year-end school parties, but also taekwondo meets, volunteer events and what was supposed to be his first solo keyboard recital.
In December 2021, there was a downtrend in the number of reported COVID-19 cases. The government lifted restrictions on social gatherings. I began to have hope that my son could at least experience a graduation ceremony firsthand. But the Omicron wave came and crushed that hope.
Page 2. A comic page of nine panels in various shades of reddish-orange.
Panel 1. A bespectacled lady in a collared shirt is typing away on a laptop.
Panel 2. Close-up of the laptop screen showing a new email notification. The email text announces that grade school graduation ceremonies will be held virtually.
Panel 3. Close-up of the mother sighing. She thinks: “Another experience missed due to COVID.”
Panel 4. A boy in glasses, wearing a hoodie on top of a collared shirt and a name-tag on a lanyard. Narrator: “My son is on the autism spectrum. He struggles with socialisation and managing his emotions. But when we enrolled him at a school with special education support, he slowly but surely broke out of his shell.” Inset illustration of children playing sports. Narrator: “Made a best friend.” Inset illustration of boy bowing on a stage to an applauding audience. Narrator: “Performed before a crowd. Did not suffer anxiety or stage fright.” Inset illustration of hand holding a bag with the label ‘School Outreach Programs’. Narrator: “Mingled with other children. Was not bothered by the noise!”
Panels 5-9. This row is made up of four smaller panels surrounding a central panel, in which the boy crouches, holding his head. The first smaller panel shows him with headphones on, slouching in his chair while an online class is in progress. The second smaller panel shows stacks of subject assignments. The third smaller panel shows loud sounds. The fourth panel shows a passing motorcycle rider shouting ‘HAPPY NEW YEAR!’ while honking. The boy in the central panel is having a meltdown. He cries: “Too loud! Everything’s TOO LOUD!” Narrator: “When the pandemic hit, face-to-face classes were banned. Like other private schools—which typically have a smaller student-to-teacher ratio than public schools— my son’s school shifted to online classes. Suddenly, the in-person social and emotional support he was getting from teachers was cut off. We experienced some regression with his behavioural issues.”
Page 3. A comic page of eleven panels in various shades of reddish-orange.
Panel 1. A diagram of a boy walking towards a WiFi symbol, with mountains and forests in the background. Narrator: “We live in Manila. In more remote areas, educational resources are harder to come by. Internet connections, which are vital to remote learning, range from spotty to none. Impoverished families can’t afford computers or tablets for online classes.”
Panel 2. A portrait of Ms. Gemma Torres, grade 2 teacher at San Antonio Elementary School, a public school in Parañaque City. She says: “Only a few pupils join online classes due to poor internet connections or no connection at all. This causes stress to parents and pupils who cannot attend online.”
Panel 3. Workers drilling and shovelling in a house compound. Ms. Torres: “Someone’s building a house next door. The non-stop noise from the construction is very disruptive to my classes.”
Panel 4. The narrator interviews a young boy in a singlet. Narrator: “Meet one of Ms. Torres’ students. John Francis Soria is a second-grader at a public school in Parañaque City.”
Panel 5: The narrator, with a face mask on. Narrator: “Is it okay if I interview you about school?” John Francis: “But I can’t read!”
Panel 6. Narrator: “Just tell me your answers and I’ll be the one to write them down.” John Francis nods.
Panel 7: Narrator: “Wait, if you can’t read, how do you answer your modules?” John Francis: “Papa helps when he’s at home.”
Panel 8. Narrator: “And your kuya? (older brother)” John Francis: “Sometimes. When he is not busy with his cell phone.”
Panel 9: Narrator: “I see. So before COVID, you were able to attend class in school, right?” John Francis: “Yes! Face-to-face!”
Panel 10. Narrator: “Which do you like more, face-to-face classes or studying at home?” John Francis: “Face-to face.”
Panel 11. Narrator: “Really? Is it because you miss your friends from school?” John Francis: “Yes, but also because I understand better, ‘cause teacher is there to explain.” Narrator: “John Francis still struggles to read. He doesn’t have a diagnosis and so is unable to receive extra help at school to overcome this difficulty.”
Page 4. A comic page of five panels in various shades of reddish-orange or blue.
Panel 1. A portrait of Lutze-Sol Vidal, assistant professor of education at the University of the Philippines. She says: “Public schools tried to offer online support to students with special needs in real time, but because of very slow internet speeds, and some families not being able to afford devices, they had to abandon it.”
Panel 2. Two students in a wooden house, struggling to answer printed worksheets. Narrator: “Instead, students in most public schools are sent printed worksheets to complete and return at the end of the year. The modules are graded, but no performance feedback is given. No social and emotional support nor behavioural accommodations are given to students with disabilities. Worse, if the child is unable to complete the modules, their parent or a neurotypical* sibling will answer for them just to comply with the school’s requirements.” Professor Vidal: “What state could the sibling’s mental health be in, then? Doubling the workload, having to accomplish not just their own modules, but their sibling’s as well?”
Panel 3. A diagram of a child sitting before a laptop, on which a declining graph is displayed. Narrator: “Professor Vidal, who also assesses children suspected of having learning disabilities, has been receiving reports of families experiencing regression with their neurodivergent* kids.”
Panel 4. Professor Vidal: “The goal is always towards self-regulation*. Even for private school students attending online classes, progress towards self-regulation has slowed down. For example, sound sensitivities* may seem to have lessened, but that’s only because they are wearing headphones. What will happen if you put the students back in an environment with sound stimuli? Teachers are not emotionally and socially prepared for this pandemic set-up, and their skills are sorely lacking.”
Panel 5: An image of a teacher with face mask and face shield, looking at a monitor screen. Error messages are displayed behind her. She holds up a hand to her head in dismay. Narrator: “Although Ms. Torres received training on the use of digital devices and conducting online classes, it is still a challenge.” Ms. Torres: “I am not computer literate. My mind is still adjusting from traditional teaching to teaching online. If I do online classes, I need the assistance of my daughter, who has online classes of her own.”
Page 5. A comic page of five panels in various shades of reddish-orange, blue, and green.
Panel 1. A portrait of Jean De Guzman Zurbano, school head of Learning Garden Montessori School, a private school in Parañaque City. She says: “With the remote set-up, the special education curriculum is hard to implement. Individualised assistance and intervention (known as individualised education plans) became difficult to execute for teachers.” A drawing of a girl sitting and reading a book. The outline of an adult is drawn in dotted lines behind her, with the acronym IEP written on it.
Panel 2. Narrator: “If all we can do is hunker down at home and wait until in-person classes resume, then home is where we’ll find the solution. The answer may lie with families.”
Panel 3. A portrait of Rickie Molinar, occupational therapist at Kids’ SPOT Learning and Therapy Centre in Parañaque City. Mr. Rickie: “There are advantages to the remote set-up. We were able to finally target goals and address problems [for neurodivergent students] occurring at their home that were not observed during face-to-face sessions. Part of the strategy to address deficiencies is making sure to keep constant communication with the parents.”
Panel 4. Ms. Jean: “Positive results both in school and children’s behaviour are best achieved with the assistance of parents providing neurodivergent students with scheduled routines.” A diagram of a calendar, surrounded by icons representing activities: breakfast, chatting, games, reading, sleep.
Panel 5: The narrator’s son with his parents, in front of a laptop. The boy is giving a thumbs up. Mr. Rickie: “Building a routine [with caregivers] would really help in providing consistent progress.”
Page 6. A comic page of five panels in various shades of reddish-orange, blue, and green.
Panel 1. An image of a government building, with a carpet before it that says ‘R.A. 11650’. In the dark blue background, fireworks and confetti explode. Narrator: ‘As of writing, the Department of Education has begun trialling face-to-face classes in select public schools, with the goal of reopening all schools when the new school year begins, though the date has still not been announced. 
By some—perhaps serendipitous— coincidence, the Law for Inclusive Education was signed on 15 March 2022, which is the two-year anniversary of the nationwide lockdown. The law aims to “recognize, protect, and promote the rights of all learners with disabilities…to education based on equal opportunity…ensuring that no learner with disability is deprived of the right of access to an inclusive, equitable, and quality education.”’
Panel 2. Professor Vidal: “The law is a great win for all. Any move toward inclusive education would always be helpful in lessening the non-positive impact of remote learning, as long as there is individualisation and contextualisation in addressing needs of learners with disabilities.”
Panel 3. A green sapling grows from cracked and parched brown earth. Narrator: “However, putting the law into practice will take time, so it is vital for parents to step up. But for those who work almost the entire day to make ends meet, or who lack enough education to properly guide their child, the current lack of government support remains an obstacle. It may still be too early to understand the exact repercussions of two years of remote learning on Filipino students’ psychosocial development, but educators say with a supportive family, some deficits will at least be mitigated.”
Panel 4. A woman sits on a couch, holding flashcards and a soft toy. Before her, John Francis sits on the floor, attentive. Narrator: “For John Francis’ family, it means setting aside a portion of their modest income to hire a tutor.” Tutor: “E-G-G.” John Francis: “Eeegg?” Tutor: “Yes! Good job!”
Panel 5: Narrator: “For my son, support can come in the form of something as seemingly mundane as a daily planner.” She stands beside her son, who is seated at a table and writing in a planner. Mother: “So, you can put stuff in there, like this project is due on Monday. Or even your cousin’s birthday!”. Narrator: “This helps him follow a routine and gives him a semblance of control, even during these unpredictable times.”
END SCRIPT.

Notes and Terms

For communities and advocates, a more person-centred term is preferred, but for the Philippines education sector, ‘special education’ is the term currently being used. However, following passage of the Law for Inclusive Education in March, there may soon be a change in terminologies. The law mandates that Special Education Centres become Inclusive Learning Resource Centres, for example.

kuya: older brother

neurodivergent: people whose brains function differently from what is considered normal or standard, such as people living with autism or ADHD

neurotypical: person with no developmental issues

self-regulation: when a person can manage their emotions on their own and keep inappropriate behaviour in check

sound sensitivities: aversion to loud or sudden noises

Schools in the Philippines are classified as either public or private. Public schools are government-funded and are free to attend, while private schools are privately owned and enrollees pay tuition.

Some interview dialogues have been edited for length and clarity.


References

“OPEN Talk 11: Remote Learning Para Sa SPED at Katutubo, Paano Nga Ba?” University of the Philippines Open University, 30 July 2021.

Rotas and Cahapay, “Difficulties in Remote Learning: Voices of Philippine University Students in the Wake of COVID-19 Crisis.” Asian Journal of Distance Education, Vol. 15, Issue 2, 2020.

Page 3, panel 1 is based on the experiences of a 6-year-old student in Bohol province who has to walk 600 metres from his house to a hilltop to get decent mobile internet signals.

Page 4, panel 2 shows a group of schoolchildren helping each other answer printed modules provided by the Department of Education.


Resources

For families in the Philippines seeking help, below is a list of developmental paediatric institutions that offer free consultations.

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