After months staying at home, Indonesian students have been either learning remotely or not at all since the government closed schools in March. Outside students in cities who have good internet access and personal computers, students in rural or remote areas are denied the possibility of remote classes on Zoom or Google Meet. Some teachers have been braving rough terrain to reach students’ houses to provide one-on-one lessons. But they can only do so much, depending on the number of students in their class.
Perhaps this is why Education and Culture Minister Nadiem Makarim has said the new academic year will start in July, although when classes actually start would depend on each region’s health safety assessment regarding COVID-19. The government has indeed proven far from effective in enforcing physical distancing in public places, let alone in applying the basic public health protocol of “test, trace and isolate”.
The devastating disruption to children’s schooling and wellbeing was revealed during the Ebola epidemic of 20142016, when schools in West Africa closed for up to nine months.
Yet, the government must consider parents’ objections. Schools can reopen in “green zones” with few or zero confirmed cases, but teachers and students must wear masks, restrict activities to small groups and maintain physical distance. Even in these green zones, schools must shorten classes and cut breaks for younger students so they can go home directly.
Students in “red zones” with high confirmed cases and deaths must continue remote learning, which will be more challenging in areas with poor communications infrastructure. The ministry should therefore cooperate with telecommunications companies to arrange mobile data discounts for educational purposes at the very least.
Start-up companies like Ruangguru, which might want to clean up its image after becoming embroiled in the controversy over the preemployment card program, could certainly help the ministry publish and distribute learning materials.
If it cannot provide adequate health precautions and online learning support, the government might simply have to postpone the 2020-2021 school year. In South Korea, the academic year has been delayed since March because of the pandemic. The country tried to reopen schools in early May, but had to close them again almost immediately after infections spiked, including among students.
Pediatricians have reminded us that while children make up a small percentage of cases and deaths, at least 129 out of 3,324 Indonesian children categorized as patients under surveillance (PDP) have died as of May 18, though the direct causes of these deaths are unknown. Another 584 children have tested positive for COVID -19 of whom 14 have died, according to the Indonesian Pediatric Society (IDAI).
The COVID-19 outbreak should whip the government into shape in addressing inequalities in education beyond the digital divide. Support for teachers and parents must be strengthened so they can help students with online learning, even if the school year is delayed.