Being a student is tough these days. The pandemic has not just thrown their school calendar in limbo, it has disrupted their lives, having been cut off from their social networks and for some, their families. Facing isolation and uncertainty, many remain encumbered with academic workload, on top of the novel requirements—Internet access, laptop—required for online learning. As financial dependents, they are also affected by their parents’ economic vulnerabilities, not to mention the persistent threat of a virus that, despite its preponderance on the elderly, affects all ages.
As doctors and educators, we worry about our students’ predicaments and how they are being framed in public and policy discourses solely in academic or scholastic terms. Indeed, there has been a lot of concern about how the students will be graded, and how—if at all—classes may continue for the upcoming academic year. Missing in the discourse, however, is a consideration of their physical, emotional, and mental wellness, and what we can do to look after them.
In fact, even before the pandemic, the mental health of our students has already been a matter of grave concern, with many facing social isolation even without the physical isolation of quarantine. Schools have begun to act on the issue, with the Mental Health Law (Republic Act No. 11036) providing welcome impetus for stronger action. However, access to care has always been difficult, given the fact that there are just over a thousand licensed mental health care specialists in the country, most in urban areas, and that stigma around mental health persists.
Adapting to the times
As the pandemic compounds these barriers, and as schools struggle to adapt to the pandemic, how do we look after our students?
Poverty has always been a taken-for-granted stressor for students, and the “new normal” of education can perpetuate this if we fail to consider students’ learning needs.
First, we need to look at the meanings of schooling for our young people and recognize that pedagogy is not the only role of the educational system. Schools provide meaningful activities for young people, serve as venues for their social lives, and give them a safe space, not to mention peers and role models. It is these “out of class, but in the school” experiences that allow for learning about life, far more than what is discussed from lesson plans. The “total environment” of the school cannot be ignored in understanding what students are missing out.
Second, and corollary to the first, any move to online learning should consider the above roles and try to cater to them as much as possible. While young people today are adept at connecting to each other on their own through social media, schools should place as much value with interaction as with content delivery, recognizing the value beyond learning alone of group activities. When it comes to facilitating learning, there is no substitute for pleasant relationships and fruitful interactions between teachers and students, as well as peers within the classroom and extracurricular activities. As professors from the UP College of Human Kinetics have underscored, we cannot ignore physical education and students should be guided in various ways to maintain physical health, to which we also add mental health. Indeed, learning is a physical, mental, and interpersonal exercise.
Thirdly, given that the Internet is now the venue for education, schools, with the help of government, private sector, families, and communities, must ensure that the experience will be equitable, mindful that not everyone will have the same access to laptops, tablets, and smartphones, or have the same access to good-enough Internet. Poverty has always been a taken-for-granted stressor for students, and the “new normal” of education can perpetuate this if we fail to consider students’ learning needs. (In this vein, we should add that a “one size fits all” solution can do more harm than good: when physical learning is already safe for one island, province, or region, we should consider doing so, and not applying a universal national policy.)
Learn from home
For both educators and household companions, it’s also very important to realize that while their older students are always at home, that doesn’t mean they’re always available. While they’re not on vacation, they’re also part of a household under stress due to the pandemic. While learning from home, it is important for the student to be able to carve out a set routine incorporating both academic and household/family responsibilities in such a way that they do not compete with each other, creating avoidable stress.
One way is to tailor academic activities based on the students’ level of internet access, and even to facilitate their access to learning materials. Some schools are looking into ways to provide internet access to students. Asynchronous teaching methods are important to utilize so that not too many students will need to access (and overload) the school’s network simultaneously, and to give them ample time to retry connecting online for times when their own internet access is down or inconsistent. This goes for lectures, examinations, deadlines for submissions, and even some interactions. Recordings of lectures or online interactions are also an option if a student cannot make it to an interactive class, but will still be able to benefit from watching such discussions.
More than ever, students need discussions on the pandemic, good governance, social media—just as they can draw inspiration from how people in the past overcame crisis.
Attempting to maintain exactly what goes on in teaching a course in a brick and mortar setting will hinder learning rather than facilitate it. One does not simply take all the existing course material and upload them to an online platform for students to study. Imparting knowledge should also be adapted to its means: the blended learning approach is gaining traction when it comes to online teaching, maximizing learning from both teacher-student interactions, as well as online access to course material.
Fourth, guidance counseling services should also be able to move online, alongside secure access to mental health services. Peer counseling, support groups, mentoring, and even partnerships with “tele-mental health platforms” are some ways to achieve this.
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Finally, the curriculum for the coming year should be iterative, taking into account where the students are in terms of their academics as well as their mental health, and including what topics are most relevant amid our rapidly-changing times. More than ever, students need discussions on the pandemic, good governance, social media—just as they can draw inspiration from how people in the past overcame crisis.
This ‘pandemic year’ will already be imprinted in our young people’s minds throughout their lives. The only questions are how they will remember it, and how we can help them make the most of their situations. Beyond allowing them to gain one school year toward getting their degrees, giving their students the means to cope with and adapt to challenges later in life will be one of the greatest gifts that learning institutions can give today.
Victoria dela Llana is a psychiatrist and clinical associate professor at the University of the Philippines College of Medicine. Gideon Lasco is a medical anthropologist and senior lecturer at the University of the Philippines in Diliman. They are both members of UP College of Medicine’s Class 2010.