MANILA - Millions of students in the Philippines are dropping out of school this year as parents fret over a still raging coronavirus outbreak and harbour doubts over how effective distance learning will be.
Some 23 million students in public and private schools - out of 28 million students in the country - have enrolled for the 2020-21 school year, according to the Department of Education.
While 90 per cent of public school students have re-enrolled, private schools have seen a plunge in the number of re-enrollees. Last year, they had four million. Now, they only have 1.5 million.
Some 300,000 have transferred to public schools, while the rest will get instructions from their parents or private tutors, or just while the year away.
With so few of their students returning, many private schools have had to shut down.
"The drop is due to the pandemic," said Education Secretary Leonor Briones on Monday (July 20) during a Cabinet meeting.
She said parents who are financially strapped because they lost their jobs or had to take pay cuts are transferring their children to public schools to cut expenses.
Some of these parents have also been lobbying for private schools to reduce their tuition fees as they are moving to distance learning.
"My children won't be using classrooms, or the laboratory and library. Why should I still pay for miscellaneous fees?" a mother asked on a Facebook group of affected parents.
Lawyer Emillie Espina combed through the tuition and other fees at his son's engineering school, and found over 10,000 pesos (S$280) worth of charges she thinks it should waive because these cover things such as dental and athletics that students will not be using.
"We value the education of our children but fees should not be charged without basis and without compassion, especially in this trying period," she said.
Another mother, who works from home as an outsourcing agent, said she can no longer afford the 40,000 pesos to keep her son in a private school. So, she moved him to a public school, where she only has to get him a laptop and pay for printouts of school modules.
"I will be the one to teach my kids, so why pay so much for distance learning?" she said.
It's food and safety first for now, and tuition later, said Alliance of Concerned Teachers secretary-general Raymond Basilio.
The learning arrangement is not ideal, he said.
With students still barred from classrooms, the government is rolling out "blended learning" as an alternative: a combination of online classes, printed materials, and broadcasting classes through TV and radio.
Most of those in public schools do not have Internet subscriptions. They will have to rely on modules their schools will send, and get instructions via TV or radio.
With their parents without a source of livelihood or barely hanging on to their jobs, these students will have to learn on their own.
In farming communities, they are unlikely to have any time for schoolwork if they are at home, as they are expected to help out with household chores and making ends meet.
Ms Briones said classes will open on Aug 24, whether schools are ready or not. "The bottom line is that the children's education will continue."
But Mr Basilio said carrying on under the less than ideal conditions comes at the children's expense.
"One child left behind is one too many," he said.