As COVID-19 hits UP students and faculty, learning now ‘survival of the fittest’

Story by Buboy Figueroa and Patricia Dacanay

As UP Diliman continues with distance learning, second-year Biology student Maria* had been striving to stay on top of her requirements. But when she and her parents tested positive for COVID-19 on March 24, her semester took a bad turn.

They had to stay in a quarantine facility for 14 days as per city protocol. Hearing patients cough violently as well as fears of displaying symptoms made her “too anxious and demotivated” to open her modules.

“When I woke up in the morning, reality would settle in that I was in a facility, my parents and I had COVID-19, and I still had so many academic requirements,” Maria said. 

When Maria emailed her professors and asked for deadline extensions, one of them did not assure her that she would be allowed to catch up on her missed quizzes. 

“He sent well wishes to my family, but to me parang lip service lang because he didn’t try to ease my worries about his class in any way,” she said. 

Maria recalled taking three exams in the facility. Taking four units less than her course’s prescribed 21-unit workload, Maria said she could not afford to get delayed by flunking major exams. 

“I knew it was kind of messed up that I was more worried about my academics instead of my health, but it mattered to me that I still performed as best as I could because I didn’t want to fail any of my subjects,” she added. 

With the recent surge of cases in the country, students and faculty members across the UP system are not immune from the anxieties brought by the virus. 

In response to students’ wide clamor for academic ease, the UP administration released a memorandum informing the faculty to be lenient with deadlines on a case-to-case basis.

But students like Maria only grow uncertain as the memorandum is still subject to the teacher’s prerogative. This fails to ease their burden as they and their families contend with COVID-19.

Grappling with the virus

Household infections in the past months have increased, including some UP students and faculty members. This is due to the recent surge of infections nationwide and the three newly detected COVID-19 variants. 

Tinig ng Plaridel reached out to 17 students and faculty members from UP Diliman, UP Los Baños and UP Baguio who tested positive for COVID-19 or had a relative contract the virus. Most of them lamented that online schooling amid the pandemic exhausted them beyond their means.

Some even said that academics was already at the bottom of their priorities, but the anxiety that they are forced to deal with persisted, if not worsened.

Jam*, a second year Civil Engineering student, tested positive for COVID-19 in March along with his household of 8. While most of his family recovered already, Jam’s grandfather died a month after battling against the virus. 

“I feel dehumanized from the experience that I already lost a family member yet I’m still worrying about my academics, deadlines ng papers and quizzes,” Jam said.

Jam said he was lucky to have compassionate professors, but the pressure to complete his schoolworks hounded him.

[My professors] told me to take a rest and to not worry much about academics muna and to take my time to recover,” he said. “Pero sobrang unrealistic niya talaga and empty for me, sobrang frustrating for me na wala siyang definite manifestation.”

Meanwhile, John*, a faculty member from the UPD College of Engineering, had heightened worries after learning both his parents recently contracted COVID-19. 

On the day John’s mother tested positive, he rushed from Manila to their house in Caloocan, nearly getting into a car crash. 

“When I got home, it really broke my heart to not even get a glimpse of my mom, kasi naka-isolate siya nu’n as I left the [grocery] bags outside the gate,” John said.

John also had to conduct a synchronous class and attend a meeting that day. “Tinabi ko talaga sa kalsada [‘yung kotse] for a time kasi sa daan na ko inabot [ng klase]. Tapos I had to go back to UP because of paperworks that I had to accomplish. That was probably the longest day I had this year,” he added.

Photo by John*

John felt the pandemic wore him down mentally and physically. He has also been receiving news of his students testing positive and getting sick.

As of writing, three of his students were sick with COVID-19 and have not attended synchronous classes for two weeks.

It was also difficult to hide his emotions from his students, he added. John tried to stay cheerful in class, but as the virus inched closer to his students’ homes, his optimism was wearing thin. 

Two weeks after the NCR+ Bubble reverted to Enhanced Community Quarantine, UP Diliman sent a COVID-19 survey to track students who were affected by the recent surge in cases.

Calls for academic ease

In a bid to get UP Diliman to order an academic ease in all colleges, the Rise for Education Alliance – UP Diliman sent a letter to the UP administration to request for the suspension of all synchronous and asynchronous classes from April 5 to 11 and the removal of stringent deadlines for academic requirements.

The UP Diliman Office of the Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs responded April 5 in an email that they have already informed the faculty to be flexible with deadlines. 

Despite protests, UP constituent universities resumed classes after the Lenten break.

Last year they became more lenient when the pandemic was starting ‘cause they realized its gravity. Ngayon na mas malala na nagpe-pretend na lang na back to normal na,” Jam said. 

Some colleges, however, took it upon themselves and implemented academic ease on their own, including UP Manila’s College of Arts and Sciences and UP Diliman’s College of Arts and Letters. Some professors also suspended requirements and synchronous sessions since it was left to their discretion.

On April 12, the Office of the Student Regent (OSR), along with the 12 university student councils, appealed for a systemwide academic ease to the UP Office of the Vice President for Academic Affairs (OVPAA). The letter reiterated students’ requests, which include removing stringent deadlines and implementing a no-fail or force drop policy.

In response, the OVPAA announced that students will not be given a grade 4 or 5 for the second semester, but may be dropped by the instructor if their status is failing or their work is unsatisfactory. The announcement came halfway through the semester.

I am disheartened at the apparent lack of quick action and policy on what has been happening to many faculty, staff and students,” John said.

Faculty members were also instructed to allow students to submit until the end of the semester and give considerations to students who are unable to meet the deadlines on a case-to-case basis.

Jam noted that special consideration should not just be limited to those who got COVID-19. “My friends are also affected emotionally with what is happening to me. Nagu-guilty na rin sila if tama pa bang nag-aacads while lots of people and now their friends na they can see are literally suffering from COVID na,” he said. 

UP Diliman Chancellor Fidel Nemenzo said in a letter published April 20 that the school year was already on a “tight” schedule, forcing UP to stick with the original academic calendar. 

Urgent action

With the worsening conditions of the pandemic, students and faculty in UP are still trying to muddle through the administration’s handling of online classes.

“I have been thinking to myself nga, maybe they’ll only act when the majority of the students, or the community are already sick—by then it may be too late,” John said.

On April 26, the Philippines surpassed the one million mark for the total number of COVID cases.

Most students that spoke to TNP were “disappointed but not surprised” with UP only enjoining the faculty for academic leniency depending on the student’s particular context. 

It exposes the UP admin’s lack of compassion and the culture that UP breeds: survival of the fittest. Matira matibay, bahala kayo sa buhay ninyo,” Maria said. 

Despite the reimplementation of the no-fail policy, the UP community continued to call on the administration for a “genuine academic ease” that will heed the demands of the students.

The OSR, in a statement last April 29, challenged the administration to impose a grade of INC instead of Drop for students with “failing standing,” remove deadlines after the reading break for a “genuine wellness break” and waive tuition and other school fees.

This is so demoralizing to see in the middle of a pandemic, because people are literally dying. They really only see their students and faculty as tools I guess for world rankings, and not actual human beings,Maria added.

For now, Maria has no choice but to feign a sense of normalcy and keep up with the demands of online learning while trying to recover from the impact of COVID-19.

*Note: Interviewees’ names were changed subject to their request.

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