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Lessons From A Super Typhoon: On Top of COVID-19, Education Got Another Hit From Odette

19 DECEMBER 2022 | Reporting ASEAN


Returning to normal school life after the COVID-19 pandemic and super typhoon Odette has been far from simple. Students – and teachers – in the Philippines’ southern Siargao island have a lot of homework to catch up on in the wake of the destruction wrought by Odette and the learning disruptions due to the pandemic.

The first lesson of the day is to get children better at reading – without which no other learning can occur, elementary school teacher Penalyn Magsoling explains.

Otherwise, “we would just be lecturing in front but they will just stare at us with mouths wide open because they don’t understand anything,” said Magoling, a Science teacher for almost two decades and class adviser of 10-year-old students in Grade 5 in Union Elementary School. 

Apart from lagging behind in reading, schoolchildren have been having difficulty with using numbers, she says, speaking to Reporting ASEAN’s J-Ann Avila in the Surigaonon language that is native to this southern part of the country. 

Teacher Magsoling

The difficulty is especially evident among 8-year-old students in Grade 3, who have never experienced face-to-face classes before because the COVID-19 lockdowns were in place when they started school in Grade 1. These pupils are struggling to adjust to the new learning environment, Magsoling explains.

The Philippines has had among the world’s longest pandemic-era school closures, which began around March 2020 and ended only in August 2022.

On top of this already less-than-ideal situation, the impact of Odette (international name: Rai), which devastated Siargao on 16 December 2021, made learning even more difficult.

Disruptions to daily life were widespread soon after the disaster, ranging from damaged classrooms, destroyed learning materials, outbreaks of diarrhea and dengue, and a cut in electricity supply, or unstable supply of power, until the first quarter of 2022.

A month after Odette, for instance, the United Nations said that more than 5,200 classrooms were “totally damaged” and nearly 9,000 partially damaged. Huge numbers of learning materials were destroyed.

When the super typhoon came, Siargao children were still doing their weekly lessons at home due to the COVID-19 school closures. Pupils were using government-issued ‘Self-Learning Modules’, sets of hard-copy documents for home-based study. Their parents or guardians then brought these over to school, so that teachers could grade their students’ work.

Amid the school shutdowns, debates were underway about the effectivity of this mode of learning given the Philippines’ major educational challenges. Indeed, Magsoling’s first-hand observations about poorer skills in reading and numeracy highlight the country’s high level of learning poverty, which the United Nations and the World Bank says was already at 90.9% before COVID-19or second after Laos in Southeast Asia. That figure means that nearly 91% of the country’s 10-year-olds are unable to read and understand a simple text. 

Siargao’s youngsters have been having in-person classes since August, after local schools got clearance from the Philippines’ education department to hold such upon their resumption of regular classes after the pandemic lockdowns. 

Before August, the last time that Union Elementary School’s students had face-to-face classes was during two weeks in June 2022 – the period was brief as it was already the end of the academic year. Modular learning at home had resumed in Siargao in February two months after Odette.

The super typhoon may have gone, but it has far from disappeared from the lives and psyche of Siargao’s community. It has led to some thinking around educating youngsters about the climate crisis and related disasters, which are the hazards of their times – and the future. 

In this conversation held in August 2022, just as the Philippines was to end its school closures, Magsoling explains that the kids “don’t totally know” what climate change means. While they learn about earthquakes, tsunamis and environmental degradation, there is room for discussions about typhoons. “We just taught them how to prepare a ready-to-go bag. We don’t have typhoon drills,” she said.

Magsoling’s class in November 2022. Photo: Courtesy of P Magsoling

J-Ann Avila: How was the reopening of in-person classes in Siargao like in June? What were the sentiments of the kids when they returned to school? 

Magsoling: I knew about PFA (Psychological First Aid), so that’s what I conducted. Since group work was not allowed (in class), I couldn’t make them play games. So instead, I asked them to draw what they remember or experienced during the typhoon, the same as what you did. They drew destroyed houses, and the flood. There were some who cried. ‘Go ahead, cry, cry,’ I told them.

Did you conduct this activity during your Science class? 

Magsoling: We were not teaching specific subjects anymore (at the time). Even we, the teachers, were no longer changing classrooms (according to our subject period), we just went on with classes straight (in the same room). Our focus at that time was only reading. We also couldn’t fully teach lessons any more, since it was almost the end of the academic year.

In your Grade 5 class, are lessons on weather introduced? 

Magsoling: Yes, we have that in Quarter 3 – ‘Weather Disturbances’. But because it’s just modules (meaning self-study ones), I’m not sure if they really read it. But they are already aware of those things, not just typhoons but also earthquakes. We have a quarterly earthquake drill and they already know how to duck, cover, and hold. They also know what to do when there’s a tsunami (alert). But when it comes to typhoons, we haven’t really discussed them much. We just taught them how to prepare a ready-to-go bag. We don’t have typhoon drills [chuckles].

Now, after Odette, do you have plans to further explain these to them?

Magsoling: Yes, surely, because we can integrate it into our lessons. We can discuss it in Araling Panlipunan (Social Studies), when talking about disasters, nature – it depends on the lesson. Even in EPP (Edukasyong Pantahanan at Pangkabuhayan, or Home Economics and Livelihood Education), we can discuss it. 

What is the kids’ awareness of climate change like?

Magsoling: I think they don’t totally know what it means yet. It was not yet introduced to them. Maybe now, there will be programs by DepEd (Department of Education) to integrate that lesson. 

It’s not included in the materials?  

Magsoling: No, not at all. But we have lessons on reforestation. They already have an idea on the need to plant trees to absorb water when it rains. 

What happened to the learning modules that got wet during the typhoon?

Magsoling: For Quarter 2 (of the schoolyear from November 2021 to January 2022), since everything was damaged, (we were left with) nothing. We declared the modules damaged and based the students’ grades from Quarter 1. We couldn’t do anything. We couldn’t retrieve the modules anymore. 

When you resumed modular learning for the kids in February, two months after the disaster, were you teachers already reporting for work at school? (Teachers typically reported for work while students did their lessons at home.)

Magsoling: No. Because our school still had no electricity (since the typhoon), we couldn’t print modules. We only started (regularly) printing again by, I think, around April when the electricity at our school was back…We brought home the printer from our school here at our house to print the modules (for Quarter 3) instead. (Electricity supply was restored earlier in the homes in Magsoling’s community, ahead of the schools located in the same area.)

You’re to begin implementing the blended learning set-up in August 2022. The kids must be excited? 

Magsoling: They are really excited. In their excitement, we actually (feel) pressured because we are not yet ready. We lack teachers and our classrooms are not yet prepared. But we will do our best… . Honestly, we are still confused how to implement the blended learning set-up. We have a hard time planning because one set (of students) are in modular learning set-up while another set goes to school. We have to prepare plans for both: for the modular set-up and those attending classes face-to-face. 

What are your hopes for these students entering such a challenging set-up? 

Magsoling: For this batch? I hope we will finish the school year with our target on reading. Starting on the first day (of classes), we will evaluate them on their reading level. We will group those who can already read, while (for) those who are still struggling, we will just focus on reading because it’s useless if we teach lessons but they still couldn’t read. We would just be lecturing in front but they will just stare at us with their mouths wide open because they don’t understand anything. 

Has the pandemic hindered their ability to read?

Magsoling: Yes, definitely, even in numeracy. 

Read also:

A Year After, Siargao Put The Pieces Of Life Back Together Again

Kids’ Memories: Blown-off Roofs, Severed Trees – and Zombies

‘Coordination Is How We Solved The Diarrhoea Outbreak In Just One Week’

My God, It Was Such A Helpless Situation!’

(END/Reporting ASEAN/Edited by J Son)

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