Volume 19 Digital Issue
Reinventing Education: Stories of Survival and Success Amid a Disruption
* The following is a transcript of the panel discussion of the three featured school leaders during the 2021 Diwa Innovators’ Congress held virtually last December 1, 2021 via Zoom.
Every school has its own unique journey filled with wins and losses. When it comes to dealing with disruption, school leaders will have different perspectives and processes in place. Despite that, one thing remains common in stories of triumph, and that is how crucial innovation and collaboration are in order to survive and thrive amid disruption.
As part of Diwa Innovators’ Congress in School Year 2021-2022, Diwa Learning Systems Inc (Diwa) invited three school leaders from different parts of the country to share how their schools successfully navigated the education disruption to ensure learning continuity for their stakeholders: Ms. Angela Corazon Licas is the director of The Quantum Academy in General Santos City who is an experienced private school educator and administrator with 23 years of experience in curriculum development. Fr. Gilbert Sales is the president of Saint Louis University in Baguio City. He was awarded the Gintong Medalya (Education Category) in the Dangal ng Lahing Cagayano 2021 for being an outstanding Cagayano who made an impact in education. Lastly, Fr. Emil Laraño is the director of the Liceo School Systems who is also the Superintendent of the San Pablo Diocesan Catholic Schools System (SPDCSS) in Laguna.
When the country was first plunged into the COVID-19 pandemic, all of us were essentially unprepared for it. What challenges did your schools face when the pandemic hit?
Ms. Licas: Let me start with the biggest challenge we had—the decline in enrollment. We lost almost 300 students for School Year 2020-2021 when we used to have around 800. It was a huge challenge for us because we had financial and budgetary pressures during the first year of the pandemic. We returned 30% to 40% of the school fees to parents because so many of them permanently shut down their businesses and lost their livelihood. We suffered a little bit more because of the budgetary pressures relating to the cost of investment being made for modern infrastructure. It was unimaginable because we were not ready to lose 300 students and yet we needed abrupt technology upgrades.
In the first year of the pandemic, overstaffing was another problem. Before the first pandemic year, we hired new teachers because we didn't know the pandemic would happen. We asked ourselves, should we still hire them or not? How about the maintenance, the security staff from the agencies, what would happen to them if they lose their jobs? We felt responsible for them. So we did not terminate anyone, even the probationary staff.
Health and safety was another problem. There was a surge in General Santos and several of our teachers were affected. Because we feared that we might have a problem with online learning, we requested the local government if we could put up our own isolation area. We made a part of our school the quarantine area for our teachers. We also decided to temporarily construct a residence or a dorm for all of them. But it entailed a lot of expenses for us. Another problem is communication with parents. At first, not many parents got involved because they didn't understand what online learning was. It was sad that the parents shouldered almost the biggest responsibility (in educating their children) during the last two years.
IN THIS ISSUE
Three school leaders share how they were able to successfully navigate their schools through disruption to ensure learning continuity for their stakeholders.
Reinventing Education: Stories of Survival and Success Amid a Disruption
Reinventing Education: Stories of Survival and Success Amid a Disruption
Connectivity was another problem. Sometimes, power outages also just happen with no announcement so we couldn't prepare. But thanks to Genyo e-Learning (Genyo), we have asynchronous classes. Before the pandemic, we only had Genyo, the internet, and then probably an LCD projector, and that's it. But during the pandemic, the school bought laptops for teachers. They were also provided with all the digital accessories needed for online teaching. There were also endless teacher trainings and workshops conducted by our own ICT tech team. We started very early in preparation for this because we had a feeling this would go on for a longer period of time. The last problem we encountered is the children’s monotony in online learning. With kids in Kinder to Grade 2, how can you sustain their attention online?
Fr. Sales: The COVID-19 pandemic brought an unprecedented disruption in our lives, including the way we do education. Here are at least three major challenges we faced. Saint Louis University (SLU) is a full university from Kindergarten until Graduate School, and we have 28,000 students. So in the light of the suspension of classes due to the community quarantine, the immediate challenge was how to continue the delivery of teaching and learning when the usual face-to-face instruction mode was suspended. That meant addressing the urgency of developing alternative teaching and learning modalities.
Another challenge was what to do with displaced personnel. There were the non-teaching employees whose jobs required the physical presence of students in the campus, like the athletics department, the library personnel, the laboratory technicians, and the like.
Another challenge we also encountered is helping hundreds of students who were stranded in Baguio City. During the first week of March 2020, the mayor suspended classes only for two weeks so some students went home because they come from different parts of Northern Luzon and even Manila. They went home thinking that they could come back after two weeks. But in the middle of the second week, President Duterte suspended classes indefinitely, so we have hundreds of students stuck here in Baguio who did not go home when the mayor first suspended classes. What can we do for these students when there is decreased mobility during the time? We had to arrange transportation for them so that they could go home and also arrange food because food was running out for them.
Fr. Laraño: Just for background, our school system is made up of 20 schools and most of them are mission schools. During this pandemic, we were worried about what would happen to us especially with those small schools in the system. So what we did first was to identify those challenges, which we called opportunities for growth so that at the first moment we already have a positive perspective of it.
We have a program called COVID FREE, which outlines the challenges that we have to face. Letter C is for constant change because every day we witness different instructions, different developments. So we are really running in order to catch up. Letter O is the operational budget because most of our students have not yet paid for their tuition fees and for their other fees so we really had this difficulty in managing our finances. Letter V is vulnerability. Many of our stakeholders’ families lost their jobs and even lost lives, so we really try to know their situations in order to somehow help them. Letter I is instructional difficulties because when the pandemic started, we did not know what to do because we were not prepared for this. Letter D is DepEd compliance. So we really had some difficulty with DepEd because we are always waiting for their instructions, but sometimes they're really late in informing us so it becomes hard to plan ahead.
A crisis can be a driver for change. This pandemic taught us the very important lesson for schools to be change-adept. In the case of SLU, this means always prioritizing our employees’ and our students’ well-being.
—FR. GILBERT SALES
Maximizing these relationships [with our stakeholders] through consultation and partnership helped the school build institutional resiliency.
One of the things that we learned during this pandemic is to listen to the stakeholders. It’s not only about informing them through knowledge but forming their hearts.
—FR. EMIL LARAÑO
How did your school react to these challenges and what were the changes or the innovations that you implemented to be able to ensure that learning is not disrupted?
Fr. Laraño: Going back to our COVID FREE program, after identifying those COVID challenges, we can now create plans to be FREE, not necessarily free from COVID but we can be free from its consequences and its effects.
The first one and the most important is letter F for formation program, because we are not just an educational system, we are a Catholic educational system. We are 20 diocesan schools under our bishop. So what we did is to make this formation program for all aspects. We make use of the integral accompaniment, which means that as we form our program, we see to it that we can respond to the different needs of people. The first thing that we did during those first weeks of the pandemic is to do what we called kumustahan. We do not begin our meetings by immediately identifying problems, we try to know what is the foundation of everyone. So I begin the kumustahan with our principals, then after that, I ask the principals to do their own kumustahan with their teachers, and then teachers, students, and parents. I even have kumustahan with all our school chaplains. We begin with that because we know that with that kumustahan, we can create those responses to our challenges. For example, if we find out that they need mental health awareness, we made mental health awareness programs. We especially paid attention to the spiritual part because we are a Catholic educational system, so we help uplift the hearts of our stakeholders through spiritual activities.
Letter R is resiliency plan especially in relation to first, the modalities, and then with our finances. We were able to look at our finances as an educational system and not just as a school so that we can help our mission schools. Thanks be to God, no one was left behind. We just restructure our finances so that every month, our mission schools can receive something. Letter E is engagement of all the stakeholders. In our program, we really involve everyone—parents, guardians, even alumni—to help us. And then lastly, E for educational flexibility. We call this FLEX—flexible learning experiences. Those are the four important responses we made in order for us to be FREE from COVID.
Ms. Licas: One thing I’ll add to what Fr. Laraño already mentioned is prioritizing. We are a very small school. Between learning and earning losses, we chose not to lose learning, and we braced ourselves for a substantial financial risk. We prioritized student learning no matter how much we would lose financially. Supporting our students and teachers during the COVID-19 pandemic has been and will always be our top priority. A big chunk of the proposed budget and projected expenditures that were supposed to go to pre-COVID projects and programs, like upgrading our library in 2020, did not push through because of the more pressing needs of the school, which includes online learning requirements, online learning solutions, and quick responses to cushion the pandemic's impact on our students and our teachers.
Fr. Sales: Getting through the challenges necessitated working together. We conducted consultations and sought everyone's ideas on how to address this situation. Students, faculty, and the management came up with suggestions and recommendations which were reviewed, modified, and finally approved by administration for implementation. SLU's innovative approach to the pandemic involved the development of a learning continuity plan to help transition to a flexible learning environment. This approach included first, the adoption of two learning modalities: correspondence-based learning for offline learners and online based learning for online learners in order to respond to the actual situation of our students. Remember that not all of our students have internet connectivity so we have to respond to that need. The online learning mode follows the combination of synchronous and asynchronous modality.
Second, the conduct of intensive and up-to-date faculty training to prepare and equip our teachers and to help them with the distance learning modalities. When the lockdown happened, not all of our teachers were prepared for these learning modalities. It was very important that we immediately make a decision to train our teachers to deal with online learning modalities. We are very lucky because for our teacher education program or courses, we have professors who have been teaching this even in pre-pandemic times, so the only thing that administration needed to do was to form a team to train our teachers to deal with online learning modalities. We did this very early. In the first week of May 2020, we were already training all our 1,500 teachers, and after the month of May 2020, we accomplished our one-month training program for our faculty. We extended our training programs also to other schools, so we were able to train 4,000 teachers in the region and beyond.
The third is the utilization of learning management systems (LMS) to administer the delivery of courses and basic education to the graduate level. So we have different learning management systems and one very effective one. And I must say we give due credits to Diwa’s Genyo because it has been very helpful also as a learning management system.
And fourth and most recently, in compliance with CHED and LGU requirements, is the holding of limited face-to-face arrangements for medical and allied programs, as well as starting online on-the-job training or practicum for graduating students in some programs. We've been doing this already for two semesters and we've been very lucky because we did not have any incident of transmission of COVID, and as a matter of fact, we are going to extend this to the engineering programs starting probably next semester.
When the country was placed under lockdown, one of the first things we decided as a matter of policy was to keep our non-teaching employees affected by the indefinite suspension of face-to-face classes in the university. The only thing that we did was to look around to see which offices needed extra helping hands, so we scattered all these personnel to those departments that needed more help. In the spirit of solidarity, the SLU Barangayanihan became the focal point to carry out the university’s assistance efforts to help stranded Louisian students in the different barangays of Baguio City who are in need of food and also psychological counseling.
How did your collaborations with your fellow educators, with other schools, with students and parents, with the community, and with resource providers help you succeed during the last pandemic school year?
Fr. Sales: With the lockdown that saw schools shifting to alternative modes of education, we consulted our stakeholders on issues affecting everyone in the light of the crisis. The SLU administration has always supported open communication with our employees’ union and with our student governments. The process of consensus-building has been very challenging for us. We have always maintained the spirit of dialogue. We know how some demands being made can sometimes be unrealistic, but it is always wise to be sober and patient. That is why we've always recognized first, the solicitation of ideas from various disciplines, especially from mental health professionals, to help the university reach a balance between life and work, and to ensure the integral wellness of our employees and also our students.
Second, collaboration means considerations are also given during the payment of fees, the deadline of submission of requirements, and the extension for completion of grades for students with incomplete marks. Third, collaboration is also the promotion of the well-being of our students through various guidance services, especially through counseling and mental health programs. We have launched several mental health awareness programs in the university. Lastly, collaboration also entails the need to monitor and evaluate the implementation of flexible learning modalities to ensure the success of new platform learning platforms, and also to ensure quality in the delivery of our learning modalities.
Fr. Laraño: During the first weeks of the pandemic, we already started to make learning kits for students both for online and offline learning delivery. In 2020, 70% of our students are online, so thank you for Genyo because before the pandemic, only a few of our schools were subscribed to Genyo. But now, because of the pandemic, we decided to make Genyo the official LMS of the whole school system. We were able to create those learning kits through the help of Genyo.
What we did also during that time because we are an educational system is we divided the lessons to the teachers from all those 20 schools in order to re-identify teachers who have specializations. We asked them to do the learning kits for that particular subject. We can really feel and experience the collaboration within the educators because everyone has something to share. And then for the students and parents, we had constant communication with them especially through social media platforms. We really activated all our social media platforms in order to communicate with them regularly regarding all the updates in the preparation of the schools for the upcoming school year.
Our 20 schools are divided into three clusters, and many of them are mission schools, so in relation to finances, they cannot pay for the salaries of our teachers. So what we decided is for the big schools in our system to help those small schools in order to have their salaries and benefits updated every month. During the pandemic, we also asked for the help of our alumni. Some of our alumni were able to help students who are struggling financially by making them scholars. Those are just some of the collaborative efforts of our educational community.
Ms. Licas: We maximized relationships with a lot of agencies and a lot of people. The challenges presented by the pandemic have increased the participation of parents, students, tech providers, and other stakeholders. Maximizing these relationships through consultation and partnership helped the school build institutional resiliency and promote the efficient use of the very limited resources we have. When it comes to our education partners like Diwa, I was a passive client before, but the pandemic is a totally different territory for me. I became more straightforward in asking for whatever help or assistance they could afford us for the benefit of our school and for the students and the teachers.
I did not stop in the Philippines. I even knocked at the doors abroad. I learned how to haggle with foreign companies to ask for help, technical assistance, and more things we could offer our students. I researched so I can learn what we could adopt from them. That's one thing that I can share with school leaders—do not stop until you get the help even from abroad, because they will help. We are not subsidized by the government, so we have to stand on our own and put on a little courage when we ask for help.
What were your best practices during a school year where face-to-face engagement is not allowed?
Ms. Licas: Number one is a well-built school-home connection. We stayed connected with the parents, with the homes of our students. I believe this is very strong in our school as we consistently get at least 90% attendance in parent-teacher conferences, and even in virtual webinars and school opening orientation programs.
Another thing is strong student-teacher connectedness. We have to set aside ICT and digital tools, because they're nothing without this strong relationship for me as a leader of the school. And teachers having increased interpersonal connectedness with students—it's outside their calculus, outside their grammar and composition writing. The connection between the student and the teacher is after-school. Fortunately, we are a very small school, but unfortunately, being a very small school means we have limited resources so I love the way our teachers and our students connect with each other.
Very important also is promoting teacher well-being. We take care of our teachers. Every day, our teachers juggle many responsibilities and many demanding tasks. As a result, they can easily put other people's needs first before their own. We must ensure teachers and their well-being remain at the heart of our response to this education crisis. At first, I was willing not to receive my salary because we didn't know where to get money especially upon discovering that we were losing students and returning tuition fees. We just need to prioritize and truly take care of our staff, especially the teachers.
When we knew we had these three important pillars, we modified our academic program. This year, we used our own contextualized hybrid flexible (hyflex) academic and non-academic engagement. It's a totally different curriculum. It's contextualized in a sense that we localized it based on our setup, based on what we have, and based on the potential capacity of our teachers. With hyflex, students feel connected to the school, and they are involved with the school. Every student understands what hyflex is, and because this is new, we tried our best to educate the parents. Even in the absence of face-to-face classes, students continue to be active in school activities. We also use virtual reality for our kindergarten class because they cannot come to school. We also have a channel on YouTube where we talk about how we tried our best to transform and to implement these new technologies in school.
Fr. Sales: In anticipation of a protracted empty campus, we have taken four significant steps in response to the current situation and in view of a post-pandemic scenario. First is the SLU COVID-19 Response Team. Aside from implementing university-based health and safety protocols and complying with CHED directives, the SLU COVID-19 Response Team was also tasked to keep every Louisian updated and informed as events unfold. They use social media to reach out to our students and to tell them what's happening. On the SLU website and social media, we regularly issue advisories. We also created a help desk per school to address students and faculty concerns during the lockdown.
Second is the academic road map. Given the challenge presented by the pandemic during the early days, SLU crafted an academic road map to help us navigate through the crisis. That road map was specifically designed to address the learning situation of everyone, whether pre-pandemic, during pandemic, and post-pandemic. Initially, we adopted the online mode of learning through the use of Google applications. Upon assessing students’ unique learning situations, we provided options for online and correspondence learning. Accordingly, for purposes of guidance, review, and monitoring, we developed our manual for distance education, so now, the university has a manual for distance education.
The third is we also shifted student support services online, which means the Registrar's Office, the Guidance Office, the Office of Student Affairs, the library, and so on were all moved online. The same is true with our university formation services activities, so training, recollections, debriefing, and even our eucharistic celebrations are now online. Online channels for students’ enrollment, admission, as well as payment have also been put in place. Even our graduation ceremonies and many other ceremonies have also been placed online.
The fourth is our comprehensive campus development program. The absence of faculty and students onsite has allowed us to embark on major infrastructure projects. School building renovations, including various learning facilities like laboratories, classrooms, AVRs, and offices, have all been undertaken.
Fr. Laraño: Many have been mentioned already so I will just add one more thing when it comes to our good practice during this pandemic, especially as a Catholic educational system. The first and foremost reason why parents choose to have their children to be with us in our educational community is because of the faith aspect and faith formation. So we highlighted that by making this holistic formation program especially for our students and teachers. Even in 2020, we did not cancel our recollections and retreats. We had our two-day retreat for our graduating students online, so we made these modules for them. And what was so touching was the interaction between the students and their parents sharing their emotions and experiences during this pandemic. Also, from the beginning of the pandemic up to now, we have our online mass everyday, and we have our online rosaries. So what we emphasize is really the particular need of our stakeholders for faith formation, without undermining the need for quality education.
Throughout these last two years, what lessons did you learn that will make your institution stronger and better when face-to-face classes are once again allowed?
Fr. Sales: A crisis can be a driver for change: change in mindset and also change in structure. That is why this pandemic taught us the very important lesson for schools to be change-adept as a condition for institutional resiliency. In the case of SLU, this means always prioritizing our employees’ and our students’ well-being. We meet this objective by revitalizing our mission and identity amid the crisis, creating innovation for sustainability, and increasing collaboration with our stakeholders.
First is revitalizing our mission and identity. What has probably sustained SLU during this pandemic is the sense of mission attached to its institutional identity as a Catholic institution for higher learning. This means being faithful to its avowed character in good times and in bad. It is in trying times that the missionary spirit of SLU must be fulfilled in concrete and responsive ways, which we have done with our university pandemic response.
Second is creating innovation. The pandemic is a transformative challenge. We have learned to be more creative and resourceful in adapting to alternative learning modes involving educational technology and other pedagogical practices. Our university instruction and development committee continues to provide training to faculty to manage flexible learning and to develop strategies to respond to diverse learning situations.
And the third is increasing collaboration. Again, SLU is a shared responsibility among stakeholders. We could not have done this alone. The pandemic has seen the Louisian community working and supporting one another through various joint efforts in the interest of serving our stakeholders, most especially our students.
Fr. Laraño: Those lessons that we learned until now can be summarized through the word LICEO. First is to Listen more, talk less. One of the things that we learned during this pandemic is to listen to the stakeholders, listen to the parents and the students because they have their own struggles so we can continue teaching and guiding them. It’s not only about informing them through knowledge but really forming their hearts.
Letter I of LICEO is Inspire one another. Especially now, because we feel isolated, we feel alone because of the pandemic, we have to inspire one another through our presence, because presence nowadays is precious.
Letter C is to Connect. What makes our community move forward is to connect with one another constantly. And then next is Embrace change, because it is inevitable. It’s constant. Before, our teachers, especially the seasoned teachers, were hesitant about online learning, but now they're the ones who have all those gadgets for online more than the digital natives.
Lastly, Obtain good values, because all of our experiences have life lessons. Every time we meet, we share our experiences, then we ask one another, “What are our life lessons after this experience?” so that we can grow more.
Ms. Licas: For me, number one is there should be a clearly defined role of school leaders in crisis response. It's easy to say that as a school leader, I take care of the curriculum, I discipline the teachers and the whole school, but what about during times of crisis like COVID? School leaders have an important perspective in the challenges faced by the learning community, and the voices of school leaders should be incorporated when defining the roles in leadership. As a school leader, I am most concerned with student learning and well-being, learning delivery, teachers’ skills and well-being, and finances, in that order.
Another thing that I learned is we should strengthen trust and collaboration. In a culture of trust, the school leader and teachers should be together and one when it comes to policies, plans, and procedures to avoid miscommunications and conflicts. This culture of trust and collaboration becomes a foundation where everyone can draw strength from during the pandemic.
Lastly is the parents’ role. I never realized how important the parents’ role is in a school because sometimes we take them for granted. The pandemic has shown us that parents have a much bigger role to play in education. If anything good came out of the last two years of disruption, it's that both teachers and parents had the opportunity to appreciate the importance of a strong home and school partnership built on trust.
How do you envision your school after this pandemic? Do you think that there will be 100% face-to-face classes again or will it be a hybrid flexible learning environment?
Fr. Laraño: At present, we are already having assessments and preparations for transitioning to face-to-face, but we still have a long way to go. We already have experience in flexible learning modalities, so we are moving towards hybrid flexible learning in accordance to our situation at the present. But of course, we are still hoping in the future to have 100% face-to-face setup. For now, what we can do is to gradually move forward with hybrid flexible learning.
Ms. Licas: First, when it comes to aesthetics, I can imagine our school with so many signboards of preventive measures on social distancing, washing your hands, and so on for little kids. And then we will probably have a whole year round of remedial programs. A number of students are struggling to get back into school mode, I'm sure of that. It should be expected especially for those who had difficulty learning online, because not all students really benefit from online learning. An intensive, relevant, and modernized remediation program is needed. We already started it this year. We didn't wait for the pandemic to end or for face-to-face classes to come back. Every time there's a problem with some children, we give remedial programs especially in reading and mathematics. And then of course, we’ll have increased instructional technology and tools in our school.
Fr. Sales: While in a post-pandemic scenario a 100% return face-to-face class is welcome, we are more inclined at this point in time to adopt a hybrid flexible learning environment. For example, we are looking at a situation in the university where general education subjects or courses, which are usually given during the first two years, can be taken online while the remaining ones, including laboratory subjects, will be done in-person. But again, this will have to be in consonance with CHED directives, DepEd directives, and after consultation with our stakeholders, especially our students whose presence whether virtual or physical is the center of the entire educational process. It's still very volatile at this point but we have seen a lot of positive elements in online learning, and we can probably merge the online with the offline or face-to-face learning modalities. A hyflex learning environment is a desirable one in the future. Q