Commission on Higher Education (CHED) Chairman Prospero de Vera III said Friday, July 10, that universities and colleges are ready to open classes in August even if the country is dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.
"We are ready to open [classes] this August. No ifs, no buts. Learning must continue. We learn as one, we are ready," De Vera said during a virtual briefing on Friday morning.
According to De Vera, "flexible learning" which will be implemented this year is not new.
"We are ready because our top universities have been doing flexible learning even before COVID. The other universities have shifted to flexible learning during the quarantine and are moving ahead for the opening of classes," De Vera explained.
"Flexible learning" for higher education institutions involves a combination of digital and non-digital technology, which CHED says doesn't necessarily require connectivity to the internet. (READ: During pandemic, student climbs a mountain to send class requirement)
According to De Vera, universities and colleges have the freedom to choose what mode would be effective for them.
Some of them would be using pure online, pure modular, while others are combination of the two, De Vera said.
But the story on the ground is different.
Numerous posts on Facebook and Twitter have gone viral, showing Filipino students climbing trees, or even mountains, just to get a good internet signal for their classes. Such posts have outraged both netizens and student groups who have called out educational institutions for prioritizing academic output over student welfare. (READ: During pandemic, student climbs a mountain to send class requirement)
When President Rodrigo Duterte placed the entire Luzon and other parts of the Philippines on lockdown on mid-March, several schools shifted to online classes, following CHED’s advisory that encouraged schools to use "available distance learning, e-learning, and other alternative modes of delivery in lieu of residential learning if they have the resources to do so."
Students of the top schools in the country had urged CHED to suspend online classes nationwide. (READ: Students of top 4 PH schools urge CHED to suspend online classes)
The students said that while they "understand the need for learning to continue, the different circumstances of students across universities are not ideal and conducive for such.”
Many students and groups have also called for an “academic freeze” as the country fights the pandemic. They pointed out that the coronavirus lockdown affected household finances, and many Filipinos don't even have access to a computer or the internet.
On Thursday, July 9, 6 universities offered to faculty members in the country free training on how to conduct "flexible learning."
"A lot of the big universities have been doing a good job for training their faculty members. There are close to 2,000 public and private universities. While I am confident that top universities are very ready, I am concerned that smaller universities, especially those in far-flung areas, may not be as prepared because they don't have the internal capacity or they have less resources," De Vera said.
During Friday’s press briefing, De Vera said that he felt the "bayanihan" spirit alive among higher education institutions (HEIs) as top universities helped their smaller counterparts cope with the challenges in education disrupted by the pandemic.
"Universities are rising up to the challenge. Napapakita na kayang-kaya magawa ng universities through Bayanihan and this is the first time in CHED’s history," De Vera said.
De Vera urged other universities to help smaller institutions that don’t have the capacity to train their faculty members to join their initiative.
"Walang katapusan itong capacity-building (This capacity-building will not end). We will only be able to address COVID-19 only if we altogether educate and learn as one. I call on the other leading HEIs with expertise in flexible learning to join us in this Bayanihan initiative to help other HEIs," De Vera said.
On the issue of limited face-to-face classes in low-risk areas, De Vera said CHED was still studying this possibility. He said on June 24 that CHED was "crafting guidelines for possible limited face-to-face classes in low risk MGCQ areas as part of the flexible learning system."
Last May, experts at the University of the Philippines warned the transmission of COVID-19 might increase if face-to-face classes would open in Metro Manila schools in August and September.