The Jakarta Post
It has been three months since Heriyanto, 52, a fifth-grade teacher at SD 08 elementary school in Berinang Mayung in remote Landak regency, West Kalimantan, last taught his students in the classroom.
Like many other schools in the nation, Heriyanto’s school has temporarily closed since President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo urged people in March to work and study from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Education and Culture Ministry was quick to call on schools to turn to e-learning, and teamed up with public broadcaster TVRI to air a new educational program nationwide as an answer to the problem of school closures.
But e-learning was not an option for Heriyanto's students who mostly have neither television nor access to electricity, let alone internet access.
Heriyanto and fellow teachers had to go door to door each day during the pandemic to teach their pupils one by one, or in small groups for students who lived near one another, despite possible exposure to the virus that has infected at least five people across Landak regency.
“The children really miss school. We want to keep them safe, at the same time prevent them from falling further behind [in their education] because of COVID-19," headmaster Kristina Ponia said.
Across the country, not every household has the privilege of a stable internet connection during the pandemic.
A 2018 Indonesian Internet Providers Association (APJII) survey showed that although 64.8 percent of the total Indonesian population were already connected to the internet, these were centralized in the most populous island of Java and other urban areas.
Despite knowing about the digital divide, the Education and Culture Ministry is pressing ahead with starting the new academic year in the third week of July as planned. It is encouraging schools to continue providing online classes for students during the new academic year, which is expected to see around 11 million elementary and secondary school students enroll.
The plan to start the academic year was immediately met with objections from parents, who feared that it might lead to schools reopening during the so-called “new normal”, even though Indonesia continues to report hundreds of new COVID-19 cases daily.
However, the ministry’s director-general for elementary and secondary education, Hamid Muhammad, said starting the academic year “is not the same as opening schools”.
“The academic year will begin around July 13th, but this does not mean that the learning process has to be face-to-face at school. The method will depend on the condition of each region,” said Hamid, adding that a “very strict process” would be needed before a school reopened.
School reopening, he said, would only be allowed in regions listed as “green zones”, where no COVID-19 cases have been recorded. As of Sunday, health authorities listed 102 regencies and cities as green zones, of the total 514 regencies and cities in 34 provinces.
Coordinating Human Development and Culture Minister Muhadjir Effendy told Kompas TV on May 29 that Jokowi had instructed him not to rush in lifting COVID-19 restrictions on the education sector as the health risks were “too great”.
In a later statement, he said the education sector would be the last to be reopened, with plans to reopen school campuses by the end of the year or at the beginning of 2021.
Jokowi said on Tuesday that schools should reopen only after weighing health risks based on scientific data like the COVID-19 basic reproduction number, R0, as well as its effective reproduction number, Rt, in respective regions.
The education ministry’s plan has also raised concerns among education experts and teachers. Indonesian Teachers Association (IGI) chairman Muhammad Ramli Rahim rejected face-to-face learning and believed that schools would be unable to strictly impose health protocols on children should schools reopen.
Some experts have recommended the government extend the current academic year and push back the new academic year to January to give students a chance to learn better and at the same time help parents to focus on their family’s basic necessities.
“By pushing the new academic year back to January, we can try to reduce the disparity in access to quality education during remote learning,” education observer and member of the Association of Taman Siswa Family (PKBTS) Darmaningtyas said.
He also called for regional administrations to subsidize public school tuition, saying parents, especially those who have lost their jobs and sources of income, should not be burdened with school tuition and their children’s safety.
To continue the learning process amid the digital divide, Cahaya Guru Foundation chairwoman Henny Supolo advised the relevant authorities to vary their measures according to the diverse situations in their regions and use the COVID-19 map to detect vulnerabilities.
She said teachers themselves had been innovating even without the internet or electricity, from scheduling visits to students and parents, to studying together at home or out in the field, and asking parents to lend their devices after work.
"The teachers and schools that are ready are those that understand and use their potential, or can discover the potential in their environment, and then use both measures for meaningful learning activities. With this pattern, whatever the school situation, an effective learning process can still take place," she said.
Education expert Jimmy Paat urged authorities to build a program involving teachers going to students' houses and handing out learning modules.
In other parts of the world, several countries that have seen declining COVID-19 cases, such as South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, have already reopened some of their schools. However, hundreds of schools in South Korea have been forced to close again just days after they reopened following a spike in COVID-19 cases in that country.