Philippines ‘learning crisis’ as kids face second year of remote schooling

A ‘blended learning’ program involving online classes has been plagued with problems: most students in the Philippines do not have a computer or Internet at home. (AFP)
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Updated 13 September 2021

Philippines ‘learning crisis’ as kids face second year of remote schooling

  • President Rodrigo Duterte has so far rejected proposals for a pilot reopening of primary and secondary schools
  • School enrolments fell to 26.9 million in September 2020 and have dropped a further five million since

MANILA: Classrooms in the Philippines were silent Monday as millions of school children hunkered down at home for a second year of remote lessons that experts fear will worsen an educational “crisis.”
While nearly every country in the world has partially or fully reopened schools to in-person classes, the Philippines has kept them closed since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the UN says.
President Rodrigo Duterte has so far rejected proposals for a pilot reopening of primary and secondary schools for fear children could catch COVID-19 and infect elderly relatives.
“I want to go to school,” seven-year-old Kylie Larrobis said, complaining she cannot read after a year of online kindergarten in the tiny slum apartment in Manila she shares with six people.
“I don’t know what a classroom looks like — I’ve never seen one.”
Larrobis, who enters first grade this year, cries in frustration when she cannot understand her online lessons, which she follows on a smartphone, said her mother, Jessielyn Genel.
Her misery is compounded by a ban on children playing outdoors.
“What is happening is not good,” said Genel, who opposed a return to in-person classes while the Delta variant ripped through the country.
A “blended learning” program involving online classes, printed materials and lessons broadcast on television and social media was launched last October.
It has been plagued with problems: most students in the Philippines don’t have a computer or Internet at home.
More than 80 percent of parents are worried their children “are learning less,” said Isy Faingold, UNICEF’s education chief in the Philippines, citing a recent survey.
Around two-thirds of them support the reopening of classrooms in areas where virus transmission is low.
“Distance learning cannot replace the in-person learning,” Faingold said.
“There was already a learning crisis before COVID... it’s going to be even worse.”
Fifteen-year-olds in the Philippines were at or near the bottom in reading, mathematics and science, according to OECD data.
Most students attend public schools where large class sizes, outdated teaching methods, lack of investment in basic infrastructure such as toilets, and poverty have been blamed for youngsters lagging behind.
School enrolments fell to 26.9 million in September 2020 and have dropped a further five million since, according to official figures.
Faingold fears many students may “never return.”
“We hope in the next days the enrolments continue to accelerate,” Faingold said.
Remote learning is also taking a toll on children’s mental health and development.
“Long-term social isolation is closely related to loneliness and physiological illness in children,” said Rhodora Concepcion of the Philippine Society for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
“With the disruption of face-to-face learning and social interaction, regression in formerly mastered skills may be observed in children.”
Petronilo Pacayra is worried about his sons, aged nine and 10. Like most children in the Philippines, they rely on the printed worksheets supplied by their school.
“Their reading skills really deteriorated,” the 64-year-old single parent said in the cramped and dimly-lit room they share.
Pacayra helps them with their school work in between doing odd jobs to make ends meet.
“I don’t like reading, I prefer to play with my mobile phone,” said his youngest child, nicknamed RJ, who is starting second grade.
Their school principal Josefina Almarez claimed “no children were left behind” in the first year of remote learning. But she admitted some “need special attention.”
Younger children were especially impacted by school closures, said Faingold, describing the early years of schooling as “foundational.”
“If you don’t have a strong basis in numeracy and literacy it’s going to be very difficult to learn the other subjects that are part of the primary, secondary or even tertiary education,” he said.
University of the Philippines education professor Mercedes Arzadon said it was “ridiculous” to keep schools shut indefinitely when other countries, including virus-ravaged Indonesia, had shown it was possible to reopen them safely.
“Our youth’s future and well-being are at stake, and so is national development,” Arzadon said in a statement.
An “optimistic scenario” was for schools in the Philippines to reopen next year, said Faingold.
But that could depend on the pace of vaccinations with only around 20 percent of the targeted population so far fully inoculated against COVID-19.
Children have not yet been included in the program.
Jessy Cabungcal, whose seven-year-old daughter is enrolled in a Manila private school and uses an iPad and desktop computer for online learning, agrees with Duterte’s decision to keep classrooms shut.
She explained: “You could see he is afraid because he cannot assure us that the children will not catch the virus.”


Assange lawyers sue CIA for spying on them

Updated 16 August 2022

Assange lawyers sue CIA for spying on them

WASHINGTON: Lawyers for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange sued the US Central Intelligence Agency and its former director Mike Pompeo on Monday, alleging it recorded their conversations and copied data from their phones and computers.
The attorneys, along with two journalists joining the suit, are Americans and allege that the CIA violated their US constitutional protections for confidential discussions with Assange, who is Australian.
They said the CIA worked with a security firm contracted by the Ecuadoran embassy in London, where Assange was living at the time, to spy on the WikiLeaks founder, his lawyers, journalists and others he met with.
Assange is facing extradition from Britain to the US, where he is charged with violating the US Espionage Act by publishing US military and diplomatic files in 2010 related to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
Robert Boyle, a New York attorney representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said the alleged spying on Assange’s attorneys means the WikiLeaks founder’s right to a fair trial has “now been tainted, if not destroyed.”
“The recording of meetings with friends, with lawyers and the copying of his attorneys’ and friends’ digital information taints the criminal prosecution because now the government knows the contents of those communications,” Boyle told reporters.
“There should be sanctions, even up to dismissal of those charges, or withdrawal of an extradition request in response to these blatantly unconstitutional activities,” he said.
The suit was filed by attorneys Margaret Ratner Kunstler and Deborah Hrbek, and journalists Charles Glass and John Goetz.
They all visited Assange while he was living inside the Ecuadoran embassy in London under political asylum, since withdrawn.
The suit named the CIA, former CIA director and former US secretary of state Pompeo, and the security firm Undercover Global and its chief executive David Morales Guillen.
It said Undercover Global, which had a security contract with the embassy, swept information on their electronic devices, including communications with Assange, and provided it to the CIA.
In addition it placed microphones around the embassy and sent recordings, as well as footage from security cameras, to the CIA, the suit alleges.
This, the attorneys said, violated privacy protections for US citizens.
Assange is awaiting a ruling on his appeal of the British extradition order to the United States.
The charges he faces could bring a sentence of up to 175 years in prison.
The suit said that Spain-based Undercover Global was recruited to work with the CIA in 2017 by officials from the Las Vegas Sands casino group.
Las Vegas Sands was at the time controlled by the late tycoon Sheldon Adelson, a powerful conservative backer of the Republican Party who, the suit said, “had cooperated with the CIA on similar matters in the past.”
The suit said that while Undercover Global controlled security at the embassy, each visitor had to leave their electronic devices with a guard before seeing Assange.
“The information contained on the plaintiff’s devices was copied and, ultimately, given to the CIA,” they said.
“Defendant Pompeo was aware of and approved the copying of information contained on plaintiffs’ mobile electronic devices and the surreptitious audio monitoring of their meetings with Assange,” the suit alleged.
It said the defendants became aware of the spying only when the Spanish newspaper El Pais reported in September 2019 that Morales and Undercover Global were under criminal investigation in Spain.
El Pais revealed information on the London operations that had previously been sealed in the case.


Father and son linked to murders of Muslims in New Mexico

Updated 15 August 2022

Father and son linked to murders of Muslims in New Mexico

  • Police have said they are working with prosecutors on potential charges for the murders of Naeem Hussain, 25, as well as Mohammad Ahmadi, 62

NEW MEXICO: Police in New Mexico have found evidence that appears to tie a father and son to the killings of Muslim men in New Mexico, federal prosecutors said on Monday.
Both Muhammad Syed, 51, and his son Shaheen Syed were in the same area of Albuquerque shortly after an Aug. 5 murder took place, based on cellphone data, federal prosecutors said in court documents.
Agents believe Shaheen Syed observed Aug. 5 murder victim Naeem Hussain attending a funeral service that day for two other Muslim men who were murdered, based on FBI analysis of cell tower data.
Shaheen Syed then followed Hussain to the location where he was gunned down, prosecutors said in documents for a Monday detention hearing.
“Telephone calls between Muhammad Atif Syed and the defendant would be consistent with quick surveillance calls, both before and after the shooting,” federal prosecutors said, citing an FBI analysis of cell tower data.
The reference to the defendant is Shaheen Syed, who was arrested last week on federal firearms charges for providing a false address.
An attorney representing Shaheen Syed described the latest allegations as “exceedingly thin and speculative.”
In a court filing, lawyer John Anderson said federal prosecutors provided no evidence as to the size of the “general area” the father and son’s phones were both in shortly after the Aug. 5 murder.
Muhammad Syed was formally charged with killing Aftab Hussein, 41, on July 26 and Muhammed Afzaal Hussain, 27, on Aug. 1.
Police have said they are working with prosecutors on potential charges for the murders of Naeem Hussain, 25, as well as Mohammad Ahmadi, 62, who was shot dead on Nov. 7, 2021.


Location of first ship to leave Ukraine carrying grain unknown

Updated 15 August 2022

Location of first ship to leave Ukraine carrying grain unknown

  • Razoni was initially heading for Lebanon with 26,000 metric tons of corn for chicken feed
  • The corn’s buyer in Lebanon later refused to accept the cargo, since it was delivered much later than agreed

BEIRUT: The first grain ship to leave Ukraine under a wartime deal has had its cargo resold several times and there is now no information about its location and cargo destination, the Ukrainian embassy in Beirut said Monday.
The Sierra Leone-flagged ship Razoni, which left Odesa on Aug. 1, and moved through the Black Sea carrying Ukrainian corn, later passed inspection in Turkey. It was initially heading for Lebanon with 26,000 metric tons of corn for chicken feed. The corn’s buyer in Lebanon later refused to accept the cargo, since it was delivered much later than agreed.
The Razoni hasn’t had its tracker on for the last three days and it appeared off the east coast of the Mediterranean island of Cyprus at last transmission.
It was not clear if the Razoni had its tracker off because it was heading to a port in Syria, a strong ally of Russia that Ukraine had accused of importing grain stolen from Ukraine.
Syria is also under Western sanctions because of the 11-year conflict there that has killed hundreds of thousands. Syrian port officials could not be immediately reached for comment.
“Our task has been to reopen seaports for grain cargo and it has been done,” Ukraine’s embassy in Beirut said in a statement in English, adding that to date, 16 vessels have left Ukraine carrying more than 450,000 tons of agricultural products since a breakthrough agreement was brokered by Turkey and the United Nations with Russia and Ukraine.
The embassy said the Razoni was the first vessel that left Ukraine under the agreement and later successfully passed inspection in Istanbul before moving toward its destination.
“We don’t have any information about (the) position of the vessel and cargo destination,” it said. “We have also information that cargo has been resold a few times after that.”
The embassy said: “We are not responsible for (the) vessel and cargo, especially when it left Ukraine, moreover after vessel’s departure from foreign port.”
The Black Sea region is dubbed the world’s breadbasket, with Ukraine and Russia key global suppliers of wheat, corn, barley and sunflower oil that millions of impoverished people in Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia rely on for survival.
An estimated 20 million tons of grain — most of it said to be destined for livestock — has been stuck in Ukraine since the start of the 6-month-old war.


One year since takeover, Taliban urge world to ‘improve relations’ with Afghanistan

Taliban fighters and supporters ride in a convoy to celebrate their victory day in Kandahar on August 15, 2022. (AFP)
Updated 15 August 2022

One year since takeover, Taliban urge world to ‘improve relations’ with Afghanistan

  • Countries have refused to recognize the new government
  • Afghanistan’s aid-dependent economy has been in freefall since Taliban seized power

KABUL: Afghanistan’s acting Prime Minister Mohammed Hassan Akhund called on the international community to improve relations with the country on Monday as the Taliban marked the first anniversary of their return to power.

After the Taliban captured Kabul last August and US-led forces withdrew from Afghanistan, the group’s stunning takeover marked the end of two decades of war that killed tens of thousands of Afghans on their soil.

The Taliban had declared Aug. 15 a national holiday just a day earlier, following a year that saw improved security but also increasing uncertainties about the country’s future.

With the new government still struggling to gain recognition from the international community a year later, the acting premier has urged for better relations.

“The world must improve its relations with the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. We are not a threat to any country,” Akhund said in a statement.

“Other countries should also have positive political and economic engagement with Afghanistan.”

Under its new rulers, Afghanistan has been struggling to achieve growth and stability, as foreign governments’ refusal to recognize the Taliban has kept the country isolated.

The aid-dependent economy has been in freefall since the Taliban took over, with billions of dollars in foreign aid suspended and some $9.5 billion in Afghan central bank assets parked overseas have been frozen.

On Monday, Taliban soldiers celebrated the anniversary with marches on the streets of Kabul as they carried their flags of the Islamic Emirate and played anthems.

“This is the day of the victory of right over wrong and the day of salvation and freedom of the Afghan nation,” Taliban Spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement.

The country is safer compared to when the Taliban were fighting against US-led troops and their Afghan allies, even as a local offshoot of the Islamic State has carried out several attacks in the past year.

But the UN has warned of a humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in the country, where nearly 20 million people out of the 38 million population are facing acute hunger.

Forty-year-old Mohammed Ali, a shopkeeper at Kabul’s commercial area of Pul-e-Surkh, went about his daily business on Monday morning, despite the national holiday.

Amid increasing hardships, feeding his family is what matters most for Ali.

“We have to work every day to earn some income and feed our children. It doesn’t matter who’s in power, no one cares much about ordinary people,” Ali told Arab News.

“There are so many anniversaries. This is just another one. When we have enough food on our destarkhan, that’s the best celebration for us,” he said, referring to the meal-setting placement on the ground or floor that is commonplace across Afghanistan.  

The day prompted questions about the future for 21-year-old Shamsia Amini, whose dream of becoming a soccer player was shattered last year when the Taliban barred women from all sports.

“So many women’s aspirations were put on hold for an uncertain time. We don’t even know whether we will have a future under the Taliban,” she told Arab News.

Women’s rights have been curtailed in the past year, as women were ordered to wear face coverings in public, banned from making long-distance journeys alone and prevented from working in most sectors outside of health and education. Education has also been limited for women, even though allowing girls into schools and colleges was one of the key demands made by the international community.

“We should all, men and women, remember Aug. 15 as a dark day for Afghan women,” she added.

Qasim Haqmal, a Taliban soldier based in Kabul, told Arab News that the victory and freedom the group gained a year ago was what Afghans wanted.

“We are trying our best to serve the people the best way possible,” Haqmal said. “I ask people to have some patience.”

 


Dutch court to announce ruling in MH17 murder trial on Nov. 17

Updated 15 August 2022

Dutch court to announce ruling in MH17 murder trial on Nov. 17

  • The Boeing 777 was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it was hit over Ukraine’s rebel-held Donetsk region

AMSTERDAM: The Dutch court handling the murder trial of four suspects in the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014 said on Monday it would hand down its verdict on Nov. 17.
Prosecutors say the one Ukrainian and three Russian defendants, who are all at large, helped supply a missile system that Russian-backed separatists used to fire a rocket at the plane on July 17, 2014. All 298 people on board were killed.
The prosecution is seeking life terms for all suspects.
Lawyers for Oleg Pulatov, the only defendant who has chosen to participate in the proceedings through counsel, have argued that the trial was unfair and prosecutors did not properly examine alternative theories about the cause of the crash or the involvement of Pulatov.
The other suspects, named as Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinsky, and Ukrainian national Leonid Kharchenko, are being tried in absentia. Under Dutch law Pulatov, while he is also at large, is not considered to be tried in absentia because he is represented through lawyers he has instructed.
The Boeing 777 was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it was hit over Ukraine’s rebel-held Donetsk region by what international investigators say was a Russian-made surface-to-air missile. The eastern region has also become a key focus of Russia’s nearly six-month-old war in Ukraine.
Most of the victims on board MH17 were Dutch nationals. The Dutch government holds Russia responsible for the crash. Authorities in Moscow deny any involvement.
The MH17 case has seriously strained the Netherlands’ diplomatic relations with Moscow, even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine that started on Feb. 24.