The Balancing Act

August 22, 2020
By: 
Veniz Maja V. Guzman

 

As I scrolled through my Twitter feed to check for news updates, I came across this tweet with the hashtag #PisoParaSaLaptop. A student had posted his plea on social media, saying that he needed the money to buy a laptop for his online classes. He also posted his GCash account number and tweeted screenshots of donations—which ranged from one to a hundred pesos or so each—along with thank you notes from different people who had heard about his plight.

When I looked up this hashtag, it turned out that many other students were doing the same thing. They turned to social media to crowdfund for the gadgets that they needed to be able to keep up with their online classes. Yet while there are many ways to look at the #PisoParaSaLaptop fundraising effort of students, it is only one of the many stories portraying the difficulties of online education for those whom we are trying to serve.

We have seen and heard stories of teachers, for instance, who are struggling to complete their training as schools prepare to migrate classes online, and of some potentially and even actually losing their jobs. It comes as no surprise that our educational institutions have been hit hard by the pandemic during these unprecedented times, yet that does not make it any less heartbreaking when we see stories of teachers’ struggles, whether it is about keeping up with work or keeping their jobs.

These are the kinds of stories that plague my social media feeds. A short scroll on Twitter would show multiple calls for online class suspensions from students, along with posts of teachers who are empathetic to their plight. Conversations with some of my friends inevitably turn to issues of students being unable to cope with the demands of their online classes due mainly to logistical challenges. Indeed, while some universities had been training their faculty to hold blended classes long before the pandemic, I saw that the students being able to keep up with the logistics of online requirements was another issue altogether. We cannot discount the fact that online classes come at a cost, just like the stories I presented above illustrate. A spotty or no Internet connection, the lack of gadgets, and even an uncomprehending family present their own challenges which make online classes difficult, and that is if the family can afford to enroll their child in the first place, particularly given that some institutions decided to retain their original fee structure for a myriad of reasons.

Just like their continuation, however, the suspension of online classes would also come at a cost. For some, their education is their lifeline. When the pandemic was just starting out in the Philippines and higher education institutions were mulling over whether or not to cancel classes, I had students who told me that they needed their lessons for their mental health. Classes for some of them provided a chance to work on their futures while distracting them from personal or familial struggles. Still for others, school was their ticket out of their situations; the earlier they could graduate and move forward with their lives, the better.

The costs of online class suspensions are also evident when we turn to the issue of contractual faculty. I have had multiple conversations about job insecurity as so many have lost their jobs not just in the Philippines but in other countries as well. Some U.K. universities, for instance, have cut staff amidst the pandemic (Summers, 2020; Staton, 2020), and last July 2, a CNBC article mentioned that around 50,904 contractual employees in American higher education institutions had been laid off to close their budget gaps (Hess, 2020). The most heartbreaking part, however, is that these issues did not just come out because of the pandemic but were merely exacerbated by it. Such issues of precarity have been present for the longest time, with educational institutions depending heavily on the work of contractual faculty while these same individuals are the ones who bear the brunt of budget cuts and certain institutional policies. As universities take steps to deal with the pandemic, some teachers have turned to creating online businesses and other strategies just to ensure that they would have livable income, particularly since we can never really tell when the cost of keeping an educational institution afloat is its own contractual staff.

The continuation of online classes has its own consequences for more permanent faculty as well. We also need to train and prepare for our online classes—both as a teacher and as a graduate student for some— as we deal with the pandemic and all the anxieties that come with it. I myself have the misfortune of needing to take my comprehensive exams during these times, and so studying for those while also preparing for the classes I will be teaching is, to put it plainly, difficult. From the number of support groups for faculty that I have joined and the number of people in those groups, I believe I would not be reaching when I say that the unprecedented stress of studying, working, and thinking of job insecurity amidst a pandemic is taking its toll on our mental health.

 

 

How do we balance the issues of our teachers and students? I do not know. Certain ideological and systemic reforms on the parts of both the government and educational institutions need to take place not only for these issues to be addressed over the long-term but also for the costs of the pandemic on both students and teachers to be minimized as soon and as much as possible. The only thing we can do for now, perhaps, is to be compassionate toward our teachers, students, and ourselves, and to speak up on these issues while understanding that solutions are not as simple as canceling or continuing online classes. One thing, however, is for sure: institutions themselves need to exercise this compassion toward their students and their contractual faculty and staff. As we begin our journey toward this new normal, it is our job to ensure that practices which result in the issues I have discussed above do not have any place in our lives—pandemic or not.

Hess, A. (2020, July 2). At least 50,904 college workers have been laid off or furloughed because of Covid-19. CNBC Make It. https://www.cnbc.com/2020/07/02/218-colleges-have-laid-off-or-furloughed-employees-due-to-covid-19.html

Staton, B. (2020, July 20). Universities to cut thousands of academics on short contracts. Financial Times. https://www.ft.com/content/67f89a9e-ac30-47d0-83e7-eba4d1284847

Summers, A. (2020, May 15). UK universities prepare all-out assault on staff and students in wake of pandemic. World Socialist Web Site. https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2020/05/15/high-m15.html

The views and opinions expressed in this note are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the School of Humanities and/or the Ateneo de Manila University.