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Commentary: Moving past academic breaks is key for long-term education recovery

Tough times call for drastic measures, not merely short-term and band-aid solutions.

In a Help Desk announcement circulated last January 7, DLSU declared the suspension of work and classes from January 10 to 15 following worrying results in a health survey. Manila Mayor Isko Moreno also announced a suspension of classes for the following week. Prior to this, the University Student Government (USG) lobbied for the extension of the Independent Learning Week and also appealed for an academic break, both of which were unsuccessful.

The USG also called for a slowdown in learning through academic break, academic easing, or other related measures in multiple proposals since the pandemic started—thrice when the lockdown started, once after Typhoon Ulysses, twice last year when cases spiked in April, and two more amid the surge in COVID-19 cases post-2021 holidays. While these calls favor students’ welfare, breaks must not be the first option. Disruptions are slowly becoming the norm, but there are other measures to ensure that students will not be as burdened and to reduce the need for a pause in academic activity.

Need for flexibility

The first step must be to revisit the curriculum’s vulnerability to events that heavily affect students’ abilities to fulfill their academic requirements. Burnouts expressed by students are a cause for concern. As such, the curriculum for courses needs to be reformed and made more flexible and adaptable on top of the adjustments that professors make.

Key to these adjustments is that of requirements and lessons. While large quantities of required outputs may be intended to ascertain that students learn, the mental exhaustion that students experience from this—especially amid a still raging pandemic—defeats that purpose. Outputs can be lessened but be more detailed and in-depth. That way, students will not be taken aback by the large number of pending requirements while maintaining the key points in lessons. As always, class policies are balancing acts between the well-being of both parties.

To achieve that, students and professors also need to openly coordinate with each other to improve class policies that will suit the interests of both sides. Pushing for the full implementation of one side’s propositions should not be the case, however. Reaching out to all affected parties and recognizing their own suggestions and what they want should be practiced. Both parties’ interests can conflict; compromises are needed to minimize or totally eradicate disadvantages for both groups.

Similarly, for future proposals and demands, they must also consider in detail how all parties will be affected through sensible projections and proposed measures to mitigate this impact with concessions. These can make proposals more compelling, easier to visualize, and more convincing. In effect, these can make justifications more understandable. Aside from the student sector’s agenda, it is equally essential to consider the effect of proposals on other stakeholders. 

Academic calendar disruptions

That said, the call for a break has consequences on the academic calendar. After Typhoon Ulysses, the term was extended by one week, which was equalized by shortening the term break between Term 2 and Term 3 of Academic Year (AY) 2020-2021 to a week as well.

As of January 13, there will already be a two-week extension of the current term. This could change if the situation worsens. Vice Chancellor for Academics Dr. Robert Roleda shared that the administration is also trying to go back to the pre-pandemic academic calendar by 2023 after the prolonged term break in between the second and third terms of AY 2019-2020. Currently, the administration’s goal is to go back to timing the Christmas break with the term break after the first term of an AY.

Just recently, the USG asked students for their thoughts on two approaches to changing the academic calendar proposed by the Academics Council and what they prefer, if any. One option will remove Term 3 from the current AY while the other will shorten term breaks. Both options are not ideal for students’ and staff’s current situations. Removing Term 3 will delay all studying students, not to mention those who are graduating, conducting their theses, or interning. Faculty and staff will also suffer from a drop in income. Meanwhile, the shorter term breaks will also provide less rest for students and staff. This is still without the disruptions that could further change the academic calendar. 

Overall, these options barely scratch the surface of the problem. Another surge or major disaster will again disrupt the academic calendar, throwing us back to where we started if this is not accompanied by proper planning and coordination with different stakeholders. 

Moreover, should the health crisis worsen, everyone must understand that beyond surviving, nothing comes first. Especially for many who have been struggling since the beginning of the pandemic, getting by each day has become much more burdening. Breaks require careful planning and for students to be aware of the consequences and effects that such a pause or slowdown entail on themselves and others. Repeated disruptions can also derail what plans other stakeholders have. 

Thinking long-term

This current spike in cases will not be the last. It is time to review what measures are needed beyond just a break as disruptions from this cannot be a long-term option. The country is far from controlling the spread of the virus and disruptions will continue whether we like it or not. 

Solutions must be beneficial to everyone and must ensure continuity in learning. Students have a role in considering long-term demands, with the well-being of other stakeholders and future students in mind. Our two-week band-aid solutions will not do. Policymaking and collaboration with all affected sectors must be pushed instead. 

The USG, through batch governments, can raise any concerns on specific course requirements in terms of time constraints, difficulty, among others. Feedback will allow departments to fine-tune these requirements. Airing concerns can also be applied for particular professors; academic departments and professors should be open to receiving criticism after all.

These departments can enact more lenient policies on deadlines such as grace periods. Deadlines can be scheduled weeks before the end of the term. Professors can teach at their own pace, while students will also have more freedom to finish outputs depending on their schedules. Incentives can also be given for early submissions to reduce the outputs for checking at the end of the term.

Furthermore, the administration can be more proactive in listening to its constituents. The recent health surveys are an example of what they should do more often. Surveys targeting parts of the community can be used to gather their thoughts and suggestions on various matters. Moreover, the administration’s relationship toward different stakeholders allows them to mediate any issues or disputes that any group may raise, and to find solutions that will satisfy all parties involved.

However, these sectors do not need to wait for a crisis before taking these major steps. These actions should be considered and deliberated on as soon as possible for everyone’s benefit. 

Blanket policies can only do so much and could provide more problems than solutions for others not taken into consideration. The academic community must go beyond academic breaks. There is no telling how severe the COVID-19 pandemic can still be. We need to emphasize policies that will allow schools to continue running during these times—without being burdensome—so that all sectors can move forward safely and practically.

By Dustin Albert Sy

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