Government moves to reopen, schools amid COVID-19 risk: Are we ready?

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IO – Education and Culture Minister Nadiem Makarim, together with the Religious Affairs Minister, Home Minister, and Health Minister have issued guidelines for implementation of limited face-to-face learning (PTMT). The expedited process is to be carried out with several considerations, including fully-vaccinated teachers, compliance with health protocols, combination with long-distance learning (PJJ) under a 50:50 scheme, and meeting a school readiness checklist before face-to-face learning (PTM) can begin. Schools whose teachers and staff are yet to be vaccinated can implement PTM if they receive permission from the local government. 

To prevent schools from turning into new Covid-19 clusters, classroom capacity is reduced to only 50%, with 1.5-meter social distancing. Also, during PTM, the school canteen must remain closed, sports and extra-curricular activities banned, as well as other non-academic activities. But outdoor learning is permissible. This means that open space such as schoolyards or terraces can be utilized for the class activities. The guideline was created as an expression of support from the government in accelerating the gradual reopening of schools. 

The joint decree by the four ministries to resume in-classroom teaching is actually not a new policy. On June 7, 2020, they agreed on the plan to reopen schools by the start of the new academic year (July 2020) in consideration of the fact that there were already 163 regencies/municipalities in yellow zone (low-risk areas) and 276 regencies/municipalities allowed to hold PTM at senior high schools (SMA), vocational schools (SMK), Islamic senior high schools (MA), Islamic vocational schools (MAK), junior high schools (SMP), and Islamic junior high schools (MT) starting in July, while primary schools (SD), Islamic primary schools (MI), and schools for disabled children (SLB) in August, while kindergartens and playgroups in October. At that time the government admitted that many problems would be faced during long-distance learning or PJJ. 

However, the plan was scrapped as Covid-19 cases continued to rise, and it faced strong resistance, especially from children welfare activists and the Indonesian Pediatrician Association (IDAI). Eventually, on June 15 2020, Nadiem Makarim announced via YouTube a new education policy during the pandemic. First, schools across all levels in yellow and red zones are prohibited from conducting PTM, a reversal of the previous policy. Secondly, schools (junior and senior secondary only) in green zone can conduct PTM on the condition that they receive permission from the local education agency, adhere to strict health protocols, have good infrastructure, and secure parents’ approval. There was just one problem: only 6% of schools were in the green zones, meaning that the remaining 94% were excluded. 

A sliver of doubt 

On November 20, 2020, Nadiem again announced that the government would allow the reopening of schools under the previous conditions. However, it seems that this time it was the regional government that proved reluctant to give permission for PTM, because they were worried that it could lead to resurgence of new Covid-19 cases in their region and they would then be blamed for taking the risk. 

The government’s plan to reopen schools starting from January 2021 received support from the Chairman of House’s Committee X Syaiful Huda on the grounds that PJJ was not effective, with only a 30% rate and many students could not take part because they were helping their parents earn money. Nevertheless, schools were still afraid to conduct PTM. Evaluation of the joint decree implementation conducted by the Education and Culture Ministry on July 28, 2020 indeed showed that in 18 green-zone regencies/ municipalities that implemented PTM there were widespread violation of health protocols, such as not wearing masks and safe distancing. This was perhaps the experience that made all parties cautious about school reopening. They were becoming more skeptical about the safety of face-to-face teaching. 

The question is, will the guidelines for PTMT automatically increase the number of schools conducting PTM? Not necessarily, because many parties are still unsure about the current situation with the pandemic. Many still have reservations about sending their children back to school, which may cause new problems for them. A personal friend who manages a prominent K-12 school in South Jakarta, for example, admitted that he is still terrified by the prospect of opening the school now, especially amid the lack of discipline in society. In fact, he reasoned: “Can the hospital cope with the surge in Covid-19 patients as a result of PTM implementation?” This means that ensuring safety at schools will not only depend on the implementation of health protocols on school ground, but also in everyday life. The school might be sterile, but who can guarantee that students/ parents do not contract the virus when making the trip to school (especially if they take the public transportation)? 

The readiness of teachers and students in conducting PTMT cannot be generalized either, because it would depend on where they live. Teachers and students who live in urban areas with high Covid-19 cases (red and yellow zones) would of course feel more anxious. Even though they have implemented strict health protocols, this does not mean that they can be completely protected from Covid-19. They may be physically ready to implement strict health protocols, but not necessarily mentally. Meanwhile, those who live in green zones, especially on small islands, might be mentally ready and not worry about Covid-19. But because they are overly confident, they may let their guard down in implementing health protocols and eventually became infected. 

 Technical hurdles 

Actually, the Education and Culture Ministry’s guidelines regarding the implementation of 50% PTM and 50% PJJ needs clarification. Does it mean that the same lesson will be simultaneously delivered to half of the students in person and the other half via video conferencing? If this is the case, of course this would be a major hurdle for the majority of schools in Indonesia who are not equipped to implement the blended learning method, due to lack of infrastructure. For resourceful urban and private public schools, their solid infrastructure may allow them to conduct blended learning, but for rural, remote and private schools on the outskirts of the city, it is obvious that they do not have the supporting infrastructure for this. Even if the schools are ready for blended learning, not all students are ready. Furthermore, even in the same class there will be a gap in comprehension between those who learn in-person and virtually. 

In light of the diverse geography, discrepancy in infrastructure and socio-economic status, it is better if the interpretation for the 50:50 scheme is left to each individual school. For schools that have the ability to conduct lessons simultaneously (online and in-person), they are welcome to do so. But if there is a school that can only implement PTM alternately, there should also be no problem. For instance, if there are 32 students in a math class, 16 students can join on Monday and the other 16 can participate in the same lesson on Tuesday. If there are schools that implement this kind of policy, they should not be wronged, because that is what they can afford to do realistically. 

The two options have their upside and downside. In the first option (blended learning), not all schools in Indonesia are equipped well enough to implement it. Also, there would be discrepancy in material comprehension among the students. Besides, it would not be easy to divide the students into two separate groups as there is a likelihood that the majority would prefer PTM because they can meet up with their friends at school. 

On the contrary, under the second option (face-to-face session on alternate days), it would take more time to discuss one topic. If normally, one topic can be covered in one session, here it might take two sessions. However, students might learn better because both groups would receive the same face-to-face instruction from the teacher. While it would take extra time to teach a lesson, it is fair for the students. Perhaps this second option is more realistic to implement in most schools in Indonesia. However, the choice should be left to each school, rather than one size fits all, because schools are the ones who know better about the obstacles they are facing. The local and central government should just expedite them in the implementation of PTMT. 

Whatever the hurdles are, PTM needs to start, even though initially it is to be conducted with 50% capacity; it can be adjusted to the Covid-19 situation in the future. If the cases decrease, then the portion of students participating in PTM can be increased, even up to 100% in green zones. PTM is the solution to compensate for the relative absence of learning in the past year as PJJ was found to pose a number of problems in terms of equity of access. 

First, there are still many areas in Indonesia that do not have an electricity grid, meaning no internet network and cellular coverage. Furthermore, not all regions have good electricity supply and internet access. The electricity outside Java can be unreliable with frequent outage, so that will in itself disrupt PJJ. 

Secondly, computer ownership in Indonesia is still below 50%, meaning that more than 50% of students use their mobile phones for PJJ. The small screen may affect their concentration level. 

Thirdly, the problem with teachers. PJJ can be manipulated because the teacher is not creative enough in giving out assignments. Speaking from my own experience, I once saw a mother who collected trash and scattered them in front of her house and then asked the child, who was in kindergarten, to sweep them. When I asked her why she would do that, she said it was because her child had received an assignment to sweep the floor. The activity should be videotaped and sent back to the teacher. Another example, during a PE lesson, a child simply changed to sport clothing and then did a simple exercise for five minutes, videotaped and sent to the teacher. The same thing happened in a dance lesson. So the learning activity is only for formality sake, or shall we say “manipulated.” The teachers themselves also face problems, as it is a daunting task to watch videos of tens or hundreds of students participating in sport or dancing. In other words, PJJ causes the teacher unable to provide optimal instruction to students. On the other hand, students become lazy or demotivated because they do not receive sufficient feedback from the teachers. 

Fourthly, it is difficult to measure the effectiveness and comprehension of lesson delivered via PJJ because the learning process is generally one-directional. It is mostly teacher-centered (chalk and talk), while having no idea what the students are doing on the other side of the cellphone screen. The majority of teachers I surveyed said that most students did not turn on the video under the pretext that they needed to save the quota or were having a poor reception. Thus, for almost the entire duration, the teacher did not see the students’ faces. By not being able to do this, the teacher does not know what the student is actually doing when he/she is explaining the subject matter. Is it true that they are paying attention to the lesson? 

An assignment is meant to measure students’ comprehension of a lesson. However, not all students want to do it. A teacher at state junior high school in Gunungkidul told me last month that out of 27 students who were given assignments, only 11 worked on and submitted them, and only one student answered correctly. Teachers in other regions often encountered similar problem. The story is all too familiar. 

Challenge enforcing health protocol 

The challenge teachers faced in implementing the PTM is how to enforce them consistently. There are two major challenges, namely the availability of necessary infrastructure and discipline in implementing health protocols. The infrastructure here covers items like hand-washing station (sink), the number of which should be commensurate with the number of students to avoid long lines. For populous public and private schools, the provision of sinks should not be a problem as they have a strong finance. But for small private schools, this can be challenging as the majority of their finance comes from the students, and with current economic hardship many parents may find it difficult to pay for their children’s education. 

Another critical infrastructure item is toilets. If a school has more than 100 students and not enough toilets, the students might be forced to queue and form a crowd in front of the toilets during the 15-minute break time. Sinks can simply be supplanted by other simple and inexpensive items, such as buckets or water gallons. But adding more toilets is more complicated and takes time due to the cost and lack of space. Not every school can afford it. Also, can schools afford to buy thermoguns to measure a child’s body temperature before they enter the school? This is the first line of defense to ensure that students are symptom-free. 

Maintaining health protocols, especially social distancing, is also more difficult than putting on a mask. Teachers need to be focused on supervising the students to make sure that they are not touching each other when playing with their friends, especially considering the fact that they have not seen their friends for quite a long time. They might spontaneously hug upon seeing each other. Can the teachers possibly continue to monitor students’ mobility at all time, especially during the out-of-class session or break time? What is even more worrisome is that kindergarten and primary school students who may exchange masks because they are interested with the unique design. If that happens, of course it is very dangerous. This is a scenario that the teachers may face and find difficult to keep watch on, especially at kindergartens which only have one or two teachers. 

The greatest challenge for kindergarten and elementary school teachers is how to control these children before start of lessons and during break time, so they do not crowd and touch each other, such as playing tag. It is dangerous if people think that the Covid-19 situation has improved and let their guard down, especially when seeing children having fun. Overconfidence breeds complacency, and complacency often breeds disaster. 

Between a rock and a hard place 

School reopening and PTM is indeed a highly dilemmatic policy decision during the pandemic. On one hand, PJJ has many weaknesses, but on the other hand, if PTM is conducted it is feared that school will become the new Covid-19 cluster that can spread out of control. This is like being caught between a rock and a hard place. Continuing PJJ means we are at risk of producing a lost generation because it has been proven that PJJ is not really effective, estimated at only 30%, but on the other hand PTM can also cause a new problem, pushing up cases and getting us trapped in an endless cycle of restrictions. 

The concern is real, not a paranoia, band has been confirmed by the Covid-19 Task Force. The data shows a consistent trend: whenever there is crowd, cases will increase after three weeks. School reopenings will automatically create crowds on the school ground, so the concern that PTM will create new clusters is quite legitimate. However, a decision must be made, no matter how tough it is. 

Drawing lessons from other countries, such as Australia, China, Israel, Norway, Japan, Denmark, and Taiwan, all of which reopened their schools after the Covid-19 rate decreased, the government’s wish to reopen schools in July 2021 is justifiable considering that the cases has been on a downward trend since March 2021. According to Dr. Sonny HB Harmadi, Chair of the Covid-19 Task Force’s Behavioral Modification Division, if the community remains consistent in enforcing health protocols in daily life and the pace of vaccination accelerates, it is projected that Covid 19 ratio rate will flatten to 5% in August. If this happened, it would be good news for school reopening, a blessing instead of a disaster. 

The current condition is indeed different from early 2021. Even though in January this year Nadiem had given schools permission to reopen and conduct PTM, no one dared to do so, as there was a resurgence in cases. Covid-19 cases increased quite significantly during the Christmas and New Year holidays. This is also the reason behind the government’s ban on an Eid Al-Fitr exodus. The holiday, which will fall on May 13-14, was truncated. Extended holidays that normally would take place between May 6-17 were canceled. All in the name of containing the spread of Covid-19. Otherwise, we might see another wave by end of May, and PTM may be pushed back further. 

In countries that have reopened their schools, stringent health protocols are enforced. In China, for example, teachers would stand in front of school gate to check students’ body temperatures, students have to wear masks and long-sleeved jackets to minimize physical contact among them. Some kindergartens even require their students to put on wide-brimmed hats to encourage social distancing. These methods can be emulated by Indonesia when PTM starts. 

School reopenings are expected to restore the learning motivation of students after more than a year of school closures. Of course, schools that can reopen must be those in the green zones and those experiencing obstacles in PJJ. While I don’t have much expectation for PTM, considering that it is still limited to 50% capacity, at least it can restore children’s enthusiasm for going to school again and resuming their studies, which has been put on hold for over a year. This is especially crucial for students from needy family backgrounds, who have been busy working to help their parents earn a living. Also, it may halt the trend of child marriages, which has been on the rise since the pandemic. 

Given the Covid-19 pandemic is global, education around the world has been disrupted, not just in Indonesia. Schools and campuses in other countries have also been closed, and learning is mostly done online. So if our students are left behind, we are not that far off. Unlike Indonesia, other countries – not archipelagic states with huge territory and population and spatial discrepancy in internet infrastructure between regions. China and India, which have reopened their schools much earlier, on the other hand, have a far larger population, but they are continental states with more equitable internet access. 

However, school reopening is not just done to play catch up with other countries that have reopened their schools earlier; more importantly, it is to foster the spirit of education through schooling, in order to better oneself in society. PTM is also expected to be able to narrow the gap between the haves and have-nots which widened during the PJJ where children who are technologically more well-equipped outperformed those who only have cellphones with limited capacity. The children of the middle class and affluent segment of society were able to study better from home because they have supporting facilities and more educated parents who can help teach them; while the underprivileged students with limited facilities and whose parents are facing economic hardship are increasingly left behind. With PTM, the gap is expected to narrow. 

The decision to implement PTM in July 2021 is better late than never, due to the unpredictable situation with Covid-19. Hopefully the caseload can fall to 5% in August, so students who can take part in PTM can also be increased gradually, from 50% to 75%, and before October by 100%. I have always maintained that in green-zone smaller islands, whose contact with other more populous areas is limited, schools can reopen 100%, considering the children there during the PJJ also spend most of their time playing with their friends without any regard for health protocols. So rather than letting them play without health protocol, it is better for them to learn in school using strict health protocols. Welcome back to school! (Ki Darmaningtyas)

Ki Darmaningtyas is the administrator of the Association of Taman Siswa (PKBTS). He has been an avid education observer since persuing his Bachelor degree in Philosophy at the Gadjah Mada University (UGM) in 1982 and during his years of teaching at the Binamuda Junior High School and Muhammadiyah Senior High School in Panggang, Gunungkidul, Yogyakarta. He is also known as a prolific author.