School Struggles and Stressors

Thumbnail by Bryce Tamayo

By Billie Mercado and Steffi De Chavez

TW: suicide, suicidal ideation

Quality education has always been something Filipinos have been deprived of for the longest time in history. This is all the more heightened by the online learning setup, where students have to constantly grapple with academic stress. The unforgiving academic burden even amidst the pandemic has robbed them the chance of enjoying their personal lives and prioritizing their well-being. In this three-part series, we dive deeper into this issue as we explore the stories, struggles, and sentiments of students countrywide. We search for the answer to the question as to why the Philippine education system is failing from a various number of standpoints.

From the Students

Adolescent years are often viewed as the highlight of one’s life, said to be a time marked by soaring personal growth, self-discovery and bonding with peers. However, is it even possible for Filipino students to enjoy their youth if all it reflects is the pressure to finish school tasks?

The issue of academic stress is not a novel phenomenon. It is not uncommon to hear stories of demotivation, packed schedules, and all-nighters dedicated to completing requirements. Students can only handle so much, and when workload and the demands thereof go beyond their capabilities, their minds and bodies react accordingly. This is especially evident with the current online setup.

Only three months into the online learning school year of 2020-2021, the National Union of Students of the Philippines (NUSP) already recorded three student suicides linked to difficulties in coping with the new setup, namely financial burdens, struggles with using gadgets, and lack of access to proper signal and internet connection. One of the victims was 19 years old, while the other two were both 21 years old. A month later, in October 2020, the Samahan ng Progresibong Kabataan (SPARK) reported 17 deaths connected to the new problems brought by online learning, additionally noting that all were students from grade six to third-year college. 

Without education and liberty, which are the soil and the sun of man, no reform is possible, no measure can give the result desired,” said Dr. Jose Rizal. Education is meant to bring meaning to individuals, that they may find their purpose in contributing and bringing change to the society that surrounds them. If the current education system in the country prompts students to constantly produce outputs and  view school tasks as nothing but goals to accomplish and submit, then the main point of education is missed. The academic stress eventually brought by these tasks, especially at an intolerable rate, robs students of maximizing their educational experience and potential.

In order to further and more accurately understand this subject, Hi-Lites spoke with three student leaders: Chico Atanacio—the head of the Data Analytics Committee of our very own Ateneo de Manila Senior High School (ASHS), Sean Ochave—Vice President of the Saint Louis University (SLU) Supreme Student Council, and Niki*— a student leader who requested anonymity. 

Working Around the Clock

If, during face-to-face classes, students had to endure a 7-to-4 schedule; now, they must bear with the screen limit DepEd set for senior high school students at a maximum of four hours per day and the consequences that come with it. May it be increasingly high caffeine levels to an intimidating number of assessments that need to be finished, we are certain about one thing: with the change in platform also comes a drastic change in the routines and habits students have grown used to.

Since the launch of online learning, students have made adjustments to their schedules in accordance with the new policies their respective schools and universities have set. Sean noted that “daily routines… have become [reversed] already,” comparing the time they used to work on schoolworks during face-to-face versus online classes. 

During face-to-face classes, he “used to sleep early and do schoolworks in the morning.” For the latter, on the other hand, he said that “[the internet connection in the Philippines’ is a little bit faster during the night time, [so] that’s [when] most students do their tasks and homeworks… [they] just sleep in the morning.” 

Chico and Niki also shared how they get up as early as 6:30 AM to prepare themselves for the long day ahead. According to them, their classes last for about eight (8) to ten (10) hours which exclude the meetings and other responsibilities they have to attend to. As a result, their workloads pile up. In order to accomplish and submit the requirements given to them on time, they consequently have to work up until 2:00 AM or later, leaving little to no time for sleep.

The student leaders also shared some of their observations on their fellow constituents with regard to their daily routines as well.

“I’ve been noticing a lot of students who are more nocturnal than diurnal,” Chico said, noting that more of his peers and schoolmates are more active during night time in comparison to the day.

Accomplishing an overwhelming amount of assessments in a short period of time is something that students have come to struggle with in the online setting. As a part of the student council, Niki observes the same thing and notes how students make use of their prominent social media presence as an avenue to share their demands and personal experiences with regard to their workload.

It is not new for students to express their struggles and difficulties with regard to the workload in the online learning setup. A survey conducted by the Movement for Safe, Equitable, Quality and Relevant Education (SEQuRE) on online learning found that 75.6%, or three in four students, feel that their academic workload is much heavier. 

“I would say within a week, I would have ten (10) to fifteen (15) assignments per week,” noted Chico, who said that he can accomplish all of them within the same time period without getting distracted. He also mentioned that he feels like the workload given in the current academic year is quite heavier than that of last year’s. 

Sharing the same kind of sentiments as Chico, Sean recounted the previous events connected to his university, and the workload his fellow students had to accomplish within a short period of time. “Maybe you have heard of my school, Saint Louis University—we were all over the news because of the call for academic break. Most of our students need to complete ten (10) to twenty (20) requirements in a week, and that’s already a lot of burden not only for [the students] but also for the instructors.” He highlights how the large amount of assigned tasks is not only hard on the students, but also for the teachers who shoulder the weight of checking them. 

He noted a stark difference with the current workload and the workload was during the onset of online classes, with “little to no requirements [that need] to be submitted,” in contrast to its now overwhelming and “bombarding” nature.

Niki also expressed similar thoughts on the matter. “[The workload] is also heavy for me kasi sa every day of the week, meron kang kailangang i-submit sa prof mo sa isang subject. Tapos ‘yung bigat pa niya is equivalent to 50% of the grade, so medyo mahirap talaga siyang i-balance and i-weigh,” they said. Furthermore, they also mentioned that they receive around four (4) to seven (7) requirements a day. This impacts the overall sleeping schedule of many students, as Niki says that not enough time is given to accomplish these tasks.

It is at these times that students start to question whether or not a good amount of rest and mental wellness can peacefully coexist with their academic workload and other co-curricular and extracurricular involvements. The online setup and education system are dehumanizing students into robots void of emotion, working tirelessly at the cost of sleep and stability. 

Students are forced to work around the clock, tiptoeing around balance and rest,  just to meet their respective responsibilities.

Sound in Space

It is not new to see students from schools and universities across the country to talk about the need for an academic break. However, some, if not most, are met with little to no response from their administrators.

In spite of this, student leaders and councils have been doing their very best to make sure that the entire student body is in good condition. “In the council, we do activities and programs that would benefit not only mental well-being but also other causes,” said Sean. 

However, while schools and student councils may have programs, projects, or preventive measures in place that cater to and are centered on the wellness of their students, they can only do so much in the online setting. 

Chico recounts his personal experiences, stating that he felt that the faculty cares and addresses the workload of the students as some of his teachers would extend deadlines. 

Sean also highlights how, after their ‘academic break issue’ that caused upheaval and clamor in the media, Saint Louis University “learned from what happened.” He elaborates, saying, “They learned to listen [and] they learned to be civil… kasi before, they weren’t really listening eh. We sent them countless letters, we sent them countless proposals and supporting documents, but we never received a response.” 

The importance of communication between the student body and school administrators is further emphasized in his sentiments. “Communication has been very open already,” he notes, “It broke down a barrier; they reviewed their processes, they lessened academic requirements, and they also gave us a three-day academic break.”

Sean added that the presence of guidance counselors and their collaborative efforts with the council and student body are also vital in managing the difficulties being encountered by the community. “We have guidance programs in the SLU Guidance Center that help us cope with the challenges of the online setting… We also have Project Sequoia [which is] headed by the SLU Guidance Center, which is a program that aims to train student facilitators so that they can also… contribute [to] helping the counselors… in catering to our fellow students.”

Niki* shares the nature of their interactions with the school administration with regard to raising the student body’s concerns. “When we are raising [the concerns] to our admins, they listen, pero kulang sa actions when it comes to giving or helping students mabawasan ‘yung mga academic workload nila. For example, when we raised na ganito karami ‘yung mga students na naka-experience ng ganito when it comes to their health… bibigyan kayo ng break, pero usually, ‘yung break niyo nasa one (1) to two (2) days lang.” 

We also asked the student leaders what they think of the multiple calls for academic breaks in many different schools in the Philippines, and they too agreed that these calls are an outcome of the systemic problems in the Philippine education system as a whole.

Furthermore, bringing up the fatal flaw that makes short academic breaks problematic and counterproductive, Niki* says, “[In the] two days niyo na ‘yon… kailangan [pa ng mga estudyanteng] i-accomplish ‘yung mga asynchronous tasks [at] ‘yung mga iba’t ibang activities na na-miss niyo before, prior to the academic break… Nagbibigay sila ng remedy, should I say, pero hindi enough ‘yon to alleviate these concerns that students are experiencing.”

Like Niki*, Sean commented on how academic breaks tend to be pointless when the large amount of workload still persists. While he did mention that he was thankful to the SLU admin for listening to the students’ pleas and for granting them an academic break, he still deemed it quite lacking. “[To be honest] it’s not enough, ‘yung three days, pero at least we were able to rest,” he said.

While responses due from educational institutions have been met, the actual issues that persist in their respective communities are yet to be addressed and resolved. It seems as if students are left to settle with the bare minimum as their calls fade into hard-to-hear whispers and travel as sound through space: trapped, immobilized, and unheard.

Isolated Cases?

The suicide rate in the Philippines has increased by 57% last year mostly due to the pandemic and the stressors that came with it, such as school pressure, financial struggles, difficulty adjusting to the “new” normal, and the like. The National Center for Mental Health (NCMH) also reported a striking influx in calls in 2020, jumping from an average of 400 to an estimated 700 calls per month from March to August, with the top reason being anxiety. 

Yet,  it is important to make known that youth-related suicides have already been a problem long before the pandemic even began. 

The general suicide rate in the Philippines has been consistent at 2.2% per 100,000 population from 2016 to 2019: an alarming and very worrying number. “From the start of the new millennium to the current year, there is at least one case of suicide [by a person of Filipino descent] covered by various forms of media such as newspapers, television reports, and articles on the World Wide Web every two years,” noted the researchers.

Youth suicide in particular has been occurring even for quite a while for various reasons. A 2017 study centered around suicide ideation (at the very least) among young Filipinos aged 15 to 27 mentioned that a regional survey in 2013 discovered that 10% of 15 to 24-year-olds in an area went through suicide ideation. Altogether, this study found out that some of the causes for suicide ideation among adolescents and young adults in the Philippines were fear of bullying, having a friend or acquaintance that has committed suicide before, demands of being a member of an organization, permissiveness of parents, and lack of access to a guidance counselor—all of which are issues that are still present to this day.
All these confirm that depression and suicide in the Philippines have already been a problem long before the pandemic even began. They were not caused by the said crisis, though they were definitely all the more amplified by it. The fact that even the Filipino youth are plagued by these issues shows that these suicide cases from the past year and a half are not isolated incidents. Rather they are a fragment of an issue much bigger—much more systemic.

Sean also emphasized the fact that academic stress is something that affects students all over the country, mentioning as well other factors that contribute to the pressures students go through. 

“Everybody needs rest, everybody is bombarded with schoolworks, everybody is having difficulty in coping [with] their academic requirements—not because they are tamad or they are not studying, it’s also because of the resources they’ll be using. Some do not have laptops, some do not have internet connections. And that’s really something we should look at,” he said.

Clearly, carrying the burden of meeting schools’ expectations and fulfilling countless requirements is a burden that is shared by so many students nationwide—an evident manifestation of the current output-based online setup in the country.

“The continuous calls for academic breaks are not just for our institution, but for all schools wherein it’s as though students are being oppressed and their calls are not prioritized,” said Niki* 

As we talked with the student leaders, we realized more than ever that while academic breaks have been granted by some schools and universities, academic stress overall is still a problem that must continue to be addressed and tended to. Students are tirelessly working, seeking for help and relief, yet authorities are not listening. Nonetheless, it must be known whether or not these student struggles are also observed and acknowledged by experts so that we may have a more objective and comprehensive standpoint. These insights will be discussed in the next installment of our series, School Struggles and Stresses.