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COVID-19 and the APOLLO 13 Challenge

By Joem Antonio


And just like that: The quarantine, which is to last until April 14, was announced. Aside from the panic buying that had been well-covered on social media, there was another concern that loomed, particularly within the academe: What happens to the remainder of the school year? What happens to the students?

The knee jerk reaction was to find a way to teach the lessons online. Many teachers I knew took online classes on how to teach and grade online. The student government and higher ups in our school conducted surveys, trying to find out the condition of both students and teachers, so the next steps could be made.

Of course, just as there was a shortage of alcohol and tissue paper, there was an abundance of complaints from students… How insensitive it was to continue with online classes when there was so much going on with regard to safety, daily sustenance, and unstable internet connections… Most complaints were valid and worthy of consideration.

But the teacher’s situation isn’t easy, either. None of the teacher’s choices have pleasant results.

If we cram the lessons into whatever is left in the schoolyear, students will complain about information overload, aside from the fact that the students would have already lost learning momentum during the quarantine.

If we extend the semester, there are other things to deal with after: Do we remove the midyear breaks (which can lead to the teachers to mental fatigue? Or do we permanently adjust the school calendar henceforth? I’m not even sure if the latter is possible.

If we just pass our students, then the grades just become numbers as they will no longer reflect student performance. This may seem the most logical of options, but consider the long term implications: Students move on to the next level without the necessary skills. Wiill they be able to cope with the challenges of the next level? And if they’re a graduating batch, do they join the workforce without exactly having completed the course?

The COVID-19 quarantine explanation can only be valid for so long. Of course, there is the question of whether or not we do need these many hours to teach a subject. But that’s for another discussion and, furthermore, that’s not how the curriculum is designed at this point.

Of course, we can have the students retake the semester… and, of course, I’m saying this, tongue in cheek.

There are probably other options that I haven’t listed down. But here’s one thing I do know: The students’ education has taken the fate of the Apollo 13 astronauts. Already in space, Apollo 13 loses a liquid oxygen tank and suffers a leak in another. The mission was already considered a failure, but there was the urgency to bring the astronauts home safely. We teachers know that we can no longer give students the education we usually give. But we will not let your education suffer in the long run. Just like the people at NASA finding ways to deal with the carbon dioxide accumulation, we teachers have to find ways to honor our responsibility to our students.

This said, maybe we in the academe can learn things from the NASA people.

Their objective was clearly defined. We can define ours as well. We know that students will no longer necessarily learn as much as they would in an ordinary semester. So what’s the minimum essential that we can aim for?

NASA people tried to solve the oxygen problem not by thinking outside the box but inside. They found out first what items the Apollo 13 astronauts had in the spaceship. From there, they built a device using only what the astronauts had to solve the problem. For us teachers, before we propose solutions, let’s find out what resources our students have access to, and what routine they now have, given the new circumstances. That’s what we’re doing the surveys for. The circumstances vary, as some students have it worse than others. Who knows if we already have students suffering from COVID-19 or have a household member who is?

For me, I’d focus on the students who can handle learning during the quarantine. I’ll deal with those who can’t after the quarantine. As long as I see students being able to rant and do TikTok online, then it means Facebook and Messenger, at the very least, is a medium for learning. Because I, too, have access to Facebook, I’ll start there. How do I turn Facebook into a learning platform? This said, there should be no pressure on teachers who have problems going online. We should also consider our own resources.

Thirdly, NASA people also knew that time was of the essence. They couldn’t wait for a perfect solution. They had to try different things before the astronauts ran out of oxygen. We teachers, too, must move fast, not hesitate to commit mistakes, so long as we are also quick to correct them. The worst thing we can do is to think that our students can no longer be taught, or that our students can no longer learn under these adverse circumstances. We have to revisit our pedagogical methods. We should try to learn new ones however we can. Experiment. Consult colleagues. For those who have access, take courses or watch TED Talk videos on learning. Inform those who don’t have those resources.

In the meantime, students (and parents), don’t take it against us if we don’t simply let you be. We probably will when all other possible means have been exhausted. In the meantime, let us keep exploring what we can do to keep you learning what you need while we’re all under quarantine.

Source: Manila Bulletin (

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