“Daddy,” he announced from the dimly lit screen of my cell phone, “I made a new friend!”
It had been a long time since I’d seen my 10-year-old son so animated. But this was the first day of school in Southern California and he’d spent it, not in front of a computer screen, but actually learning face-to-face in a brick-and-mortar classroom. And as I watched his fluttering image from the Philippines nearly 12,000 kilometers away, my dear little son seemed reawakened before my eyes.
God, how I longed to hug him. Lord, how I missed his baby sister and mom standing right there beside him. Being apart from them was a sacrifice, for sure. But it was one I was making for the well-being of my son.
“Good for you, Isaac,” I said, choking down the growing lump in my throat. “I’m glad your first day went well.”
Then we hung up and I was alone.
I first wrote about this potential family separation back in July of last year after hearing President Duterte’s declaration that Philippine classrooms would remain closed until something convinced him they were safe to reopen. “Fortunately,” I wrote, “both Isaac and his mom are dual US/Philippine citizens, which gives us other options. So now, as the traditional first day of school grows near, we are facing a daunting decision; whether to go there or stay here.”
Eventually we made the painful choice of returning to America where, after another year of what everyone euphemistically called online “education”, the schools finally succumbed to the loud public clamor to reopen their doors. Just in time for my solo return to the Philippines to take care of such pressing matters as renewing my visa and checking on our house.
But what’s amazed me most in the wake of my return is the complete lack of rancor regarding this country’s still-shuttered schools. Why isn’t anyone complaining?
Believe me, it isn’t because of unusually high COVID numbers. Many places that have recommenced normal education have infection rates equaling or exceeding those of the Philippines. In fact, this is one of only five countries worldwide that has not resumed in-person classes; the others are Bangladesh, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela.
It also has little to do with science. Children, since the beginning of the pandemic, have enjoyed significantly lower infection rates than have adults. And those who get sick generally experience only mild symptoms, seldom requiring hospitalization and rarely resulting in death. There are even preliminary indications that in-class learning may actually lower those already miniscule rates; a recent study by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that in Los Angeles County, where I grew up, the case rates among children attending school from September 2020, through March 2021, were dramatically lower than those of children overall.
The long-term damage inflicted on youngsters kept out of school, on the other hand, is significant and well pronounced. “The associated consequences of school closure—learning loss, mental distress, missed vaccinations, and heightened risk of dropout, child labor, and child marriage—will be felt by many children,” Oyunsaikhan Dendevnorov, the Philippines’ representative to the United Nations Children’s Fund, said in a statement marking the recent release of a report by that agency calling for schools to reopen.
Citing various studies, the report asserts that a young person’s positive experiences in elementary school are a predictor of future social, emotional, and educational outcomes. Those who fall behind, the Philippine Daily Inquirer quoted the report as saying, “stay behind for the remaining time they spend in schools, and the gap widens over the years.”
Not to mention the P1.9 trillion lost, according to the Manila-based Asian Development Bank, for every year the schools remain closed.
So why aren’t more Filipinos raising their voices in protest? It’s a question I honestly can’t answer. In my home state of California, the public outcry against prolonged school closures, among other issues, grew adamant enough to force the governor into an upcoming recall election that could remove him from office. And yet here in the Philippines, the relative silence is hurting my ears.
And so I wait. And wonder. And hope that one day my little family will reunite for more than just Christmas.
Oh, yes, and enjoy that daily long-distance video chat with my highly excited son. “I had a fantastic day,” he assured me last night. “I’m just so happy to be back at school!”
After which I slept very well.
Sign up here to receive “Expat Eye” weekly by email.
David Haldane’s latest book is a short-story collection called “Jenny on the Street.” A former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, where he shared in a 1992 Pulitzer for coverage of the LA riots, Haldane is an award-winning journalist, author and broadcaster currently dividing his time between homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Northern Mindanao, Philippines, where this column appears weekly in the Mindanao Gold Star Daily.