A teacher call center enables lockdown learning in the Philippines

By Sara Gomez Armas

Manila, Oct 15 (efe-epa).- The Philippines has closed its classrooms until a COVID-19 vaccine is ready and has imposed a distance learning model full of challenges for thousands of families with few resources, but a “call center” with 70 teachers, is available from Monday to Friday to resolve student doubts about the new normal through phone or chat.

“This school year is going to be really difficult for us teachers and especially for the students. With this program, we try to facilitate the learning,” said Rochel Gumangan, a 26-year-old teacher hired to participate in the Tele-Aral program, an initiative of the Taguig city council, one of the wealthiest of the 17 cities that make up the metropolitan area of ??Manila.

After delaying the June start of the academic year twice, the Philippines resumed classes on Oct. 5 with an online system that has left 3 million children at risk of dropping out due to the lack of electronic devices and internet connection.

Tele-Aral was initially only for Taguig students, but given the challenges faced by 24.6 million Filipino students enrolled in primary and secondary schools – 22.5 million in public schools and 2.1 million in private schools – the Department of Education asked that city council to extend its services to the entire country.

“We are able to assist them, especially in maths, one of the subjects we receive more inquiries (about),” says Rochel, after explaining an equation solution with a small blackboard to a seventh-grader over a video call.

A colleague, Janine, mainly answers questions to do with English classes, especially grammar and spelling, and explains that the majority of the hundreds of queries they receive daily are through Facebook, since many homes in the Philippines do not have Wi-Fi connection, but they do have phone data plans that allow them to connect to the social network for free, without consuming bytes.

Not surprisingly, the Philippines is the country that spends the most time on Facebook in the world.

Like many of Tele-Aral’s teachers, Rochel and Janine worked in a call center while studying, since a decade ago Manila became the world capital of these customer service centers of different multinationals, a sector that before the pandemic employed more than 1 million Filipinos and accounted for 11 percent of the Philippines’ GDP.

“They are professional teachers, they have degrees in education, but a lot of them used to work before in a call center and have experience in customer assistance,” George Tizon, director of education for the Taguig city council and promoter of Tele-Aral, told EFE.

Safety measures are essential: temperature checks at the entrance, mandatory face masks and face shields, separation screens and social distancing between workers to avoid COVID-19 infections in the country with most infections in Southeast Asia, with about 346,500 cases and more than 6,400 deaths, with Manila as the epicenter.

The call center is installed in the Renato Cayetano school, taking advantage of the computer labs of the 10 public secondary schools in Taguig “in order to help the students and the parents who will go through the blended learning for this school year,” Tizon said.

But Tele-Aral is not only a solution to the current COVID-19 crisis – it will be fundamental in the new post-pandemic normal, even when a vaccine is available.

“We are looking for blended face-to-face learning once the vaccine is available. Therefore, in Taguig city, we won’t go back to the traditional classroom setting,” explained Tizon.

Despite initiatives such as Tele-Aral, the Department of Education estimates enrollment this year is 3 million lower than last year and many who have enrolled will have to overcome difficulties in this new teaching model.

In other parts of the capital – where a third of its 14 million inhabitants live below the poverty line – thousands of families have had to make a great financial effort to acquire devices and internet connectivity.

“I had to spend 5,000 (pesos, $103) in buying a cell phone so my two kids can follow the online classes and ask questions to the teachers,” says Christine Gamboa, who is employed as a domestic worker in several houses in Manila.

Despite her efforts, she is aware that her 6- and 8-year-old children are not going to learn as much this year as they would if they attended class every day, but she is satisfied with them not missing the academic year and is much calmer having them at home than outside facing the threat of COVID-19. EFE-EPA


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