Years of COVID school closures leave Philippines with deep scars



On Aug. 22, schools in the Philippines will finally reopen their doors to students after two and a half years — one of the longest pandemic-induced school closures in the world. As well as devastating the individual prospects of countless children, the extended hiatus is threatening to leave long-term scars on an economy historically reliant on sending high-skilled workers abroad.

Protracted school closures worsen basic literacy standards and will likely reduce the productivity and earnings of children once they enter the workforce, the World Bank warned in a recent report.

About 10% of Filipinos work abroad and the economy is dependent on remittances sent back by its overseas nurses, teachers and engineers, among other workers. A steady flow of graduates is also essential to the country’s push to establish itself as an outsourcing center for international corporations and to increasing the number of decent jobs closer to home.

“The impact is huge,” the country’s economic planning chief Arsenio M. Balisacan said in an interview. “The quality of graduates we produce affects the competitiveness of our labor force.”

While protracted school closures have bedeviled many countries — particularly poorer ones — the problem is particularly acute in the Philippines, where the shutdown has been one of the longest in the world according to data from the United Nations Children’s Fund. Even now, full in-person teaching isn’t planned until November.

One reason for the tardiness in reopening is the country’s social structure. Households are mostly composed of extended families so many children live with grandparents who are vulnerable to the virus because of old age, or with other relatives who may have underlying health conditions.

Exacerbating fears of the virus are long-standing logistical issues in poorly funded schools including overcrowding. Prior to the virus, classes in public schools of more than 60 students were common, necessitating textbook sharing and preventing any meaningful social distancing.

So while parents are dismayed at their children’s lack of progress, fear of the virus has kept criticism of the government in check. Cristina Martinez, a 31-year-old vegetable seller in the coastal town of Hagonoy and mother of four children, says her 10-year-old “can barely read sentences,” particularly in English, the language used in science and math textbooks. “The situation is hard for us, but I think there’s not much we can do.”

Compensating for two years of inadequate learning requires a program that includes make-up classes for younger pupils and training for college students to prevent irreversible human capital losses, Balisacan said.

Success is crucial if the next generation of Filipinos are to access good quality jobs — and new president Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr., is to keep his pledge to bring the poverty rate to 9% by the end of his term in 2028 from 23.7% as of the first half of last year.

A failing education system means the nation’s future labor force could have a much more limited skill set, said Nicholas T. Mapa, economist at ING Groep in Manila. “This is one of the many scarring effects on the economy.”

The proportion of children who cannot read a simple text by the age of 10 has increased notably over the pandemic without a good education, migrant Filipinos will be looking at roles in vulnerable occupations such as cleaning and domestic work, Department of Migrant Workers Secretary Susan V. Ople said.

These typically attract both poorer pay and conditions. In his inauguration speech, Mr. Marcos said pushing more money into education and reforms such as revamping the curricula is a top priority. Entry-level teachers in public elementary and secondary schools receive monthly salaries of just over $400 and primary education expenditure per child in the country is 30% below the average for lower middle-income countries, according to development agency data.

“We are condemning the future of our race to menial occupations abroad,” Mr. Marcos said, making his case for reform. “Once we had an education system that prepared coming generations for more and better jobs, there is hope for a comeback.” — Bloomberg