Gemma Holliani Cahya, Jakarta – The government's decision to allow more schools to reopen has drawn strong criticism from pediatricians and teachers who have been calling for schools to stay focused on distance learning to prevent children from contracting the coronavirus disease.
Despite daily increases of infections in Indonesia, the government expanded on Friday a school reopening policy for schools in COVID-19 yellow zones, or moderate-risk areas. The decision comes only a month after schools in green zones, or low-risk areas, were given the green light to reopen.
The Federation of Indonesian Teachers Associations (FSGI) said the change risked creating new infection clusters at schools. The group has received reports of at least 180 teachers and students from across the nation who have tested positive for the virus.
"The right to live and the right for students, teachers and parents to be healthy are still the most important things," FSGI deputy secretary-general Satriwan Salim said on Monday.
"Children are also entitled to the right to education, but we have to remember that children who can get an education are children who are healthy and alive. Distance learning is the best option we have right now."
The FSGI said that while it was true that there were many limitations and technical problems hindering distance learning, reopening schools was not the answer.
"The government and local administrations must first solve the problems of distance learning. There should be intense coordination across ministries, institutions and regional administrations to find the solutions. This is the key," he added.When the previous policy allowing schools in green zones to reopen was in force, the FSGI found at least 79 regions violated the policy. They found, for example, that some schools outside green zones reopened, and some preschools in green zones reopened even though the policy prohibited them from doing so.
"We wonder why there were no sanctions from the government for these regions," FSGI secretary-general Heru Purnomo said.
Official data shows 57 percent of Indonesian students currently live in red and orange zones, while the remaining 43 percent are in green and yellow zones across 276 cities and regencies.
Indonesian Pediatricians Association (IDAI) chairman Aman Pulungan questioned whether regions had an adequate number of polymerase chain reaction tests and intensive care beds to handle a potential spike in cases among children. "If they are not prepared, then don't open the schools," Aman said on Sunday.
Education and Culture Minister Nadiem Makarim has repeatedly said that the decision to reopen is optional and that schools and parents have discretion to decide what is best.
But critics say the policy could see parents sending their children back to school prematurely without taking the proper safety measures.
According to the IDAI, 60 children have died of COVID-19 and thousands others have tested positive, though Aman said the numbers could be higher since the association's records did not take into account fatalities among suspected cases and cases treated by non-pediatricians.
The Health Ministry found that 6,584 children aged 6 to 17 years old had tested positive for the virus as of Aug. 6.
"And even with these numbers only, we already have the highest number of child deaths from COVID-19 in the Asia-Pacific," said Aman who is also the president of the Asia-Pacific Pediatrics Association. "The IDAI strongly opposes the decision to reopen schools."
Aman also urged the government to involve the IDAI in the formulation of health protocols and policy relating to children's education during the pandemic.
Epidemiologist Pandu Riono from the University of Indonesia said the government must stop making important policies based on its "inaccurate" zoning system.
The government has color-coded regions to indicate COVID-19 threat levels, using green, yellow, orange and red. Green zones indicate low-risk areas, while red zones are at highest risk of transmission.
"This zoning is inaccurate because it is based on data that might not be accurate. The data on COVID-19 cases really depends on the number of tests done. If one area has a low testing rate, it is possible that no cases are found there," Pandu said.
"It is a very risky 'experiment'. We are not in a normal situation. If schools reopen only to be closed again due to the possible escalation of infections, it will only bring more trauma to students."