Indonesia: After 18 months of school closures, children must safely resume face-to-face learning as soon as possible – UNICEF/WHO

Jakarta: Almost 18 months after schools in Indonesia were closed to curb the spread of COVID-19, UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO) urge all schools in the country to safely reopen and resume face-to-face learning for children as soon as possible.

According to government data, over 60 million students in Indonesia were affected by nationwide school closures in March 2020. Since then, 39 per cent of schools have reopened for limited face-to-face learning, as of 6 September 2021, in line with the national guidelines.

Given the high transmissibility of the Delta variant, public health measures are critical to reduce community transmission in all settings, including schools. Even in areas with high rates of COVID-19, WHO recommends for schools to safely reopen by adopting measures to minimize transmission of the virus. With strict safety protocols, schools can be safer environments for children than being out-of-school.

“When considering opening up schools, we need to assess how to apply the necessary public health measures, such as physical distancing, keeping at least one meter apart, and making sure that students can wash their hand with soap regularly. But we must understand schools do not operate in isolation. Schools are part of communities,” said Dr Paranietharan, WHO Representative to Indonesia. “So, it is essential that when we open schools, we also bring transmission in those communities under control.”

School closures impact not only on students’ learning, but also on their health and well-being at critical developmental stages, with long-lasting repercussions. A recent survey by Ministry of Health and UNICEF found that, among 4,374 health centres across all 34 provinces, 58 per cent reported difficulty in providing school-based vaccination programmes.

Children who are not in school also face additional risks of exploitation alongside physical, emotional and sexual violence. Worrying increases in child marriage and child violence have been documented in Indonesia since the start of the pandemic. Religious courts recorded a three-fold increase in requests for marriage dispensations, from 23,126 in 2019 to 64,211 in 2020.

Although successful measures have been put in place by national and local authorities to support remote learning, many children are still facing significant disruptions to their education. In a survey conducted in the last quarter of 2020 across 34 provinces and 247 districts, over half (57.3 per cent) of households with children said that access to reliable internet is a major concern. About a quarter of parents said they lacked the time and capacity to support their children with remote learning, while almost three in four said they were concerned about learning loss.

“For children, schools are more than just classrooms. They provide learning, friendship, safety and healthy environments,” said UNICEF Representative Debora Comini. “The longer children are out of school, the longer they are cut off from this critical support. As COVID-19 restrictions are eased, we must prioritize the safe reopening of schools so that millions of students do not suffer lifelong damage to their learning and potential.”

As schools reopen for face-to-face learning across the country, a comprehensive recovery response for students should be put in place to minimize the impact of long-term school closures on children’s lives. UNICEF and partners call for three key priorities for recovery in schools:

Targeted programmes to safely bring all children and youth back in school where they can access services to meet their individual learning, health, psychosocial wellbeing, and other needs.
Refresher or remedial learning plans to help students catch up on lost learning while moving them through new academic material.
Support for teachers to address learning loss, including through digital technology.

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