Last week, a prominent epidemiologist called for Jakarta to stop face-to-face learning until March, following the discovery of 67 positive cases of COVID-19 in schools. These cases constituted roughly less than 5 percent of overall cases based on available data.
The highly transmissible Omicron variant makes this feel urgent as it seems set to spread widely. But caution on closing schools may be wise, however, with the future of children at stake. To advocates of a more risk-averse approach to open schools, let’s ask two questions. Who is to say the next variant will not be even more transmissible and perhaps even more lethal? Students have lost two years already. Exactly how long are we prepared to sacrifice their chance at a better future while waiting for an unknown pathogen to be defeated?
As prominently profiled by the author Michael Lewis in The Premonition: A Pandemic Story, schools certainly are a powerful transmitter of infection. Children sit close together in buses, like to study in groups, and tend to congregate more closely than adults. And keeping masks on young children can be a challenge.
At the American Chamber of Commerce in Indonesia (AmCham), many of our members are deeply concerned about the economic impact of closed schools on investment and the future. Indonesia needs a trained and capable workforce and it can ill afford further gaps in the talent pool. Investors also need open schools for their families and the families of their employees.
Closing schools can seem an easy option but it has perilous consequences. As the pandemic grinds on, governments around the world have had to balance public health concerns against economic well-being. Generally, for most, the goal has been to try to keep businesses going and schools open while striving for the greatest levels of normalcy possible while maintaining reasonable precautions.
A second issue is that a substantial portion of students lack access to a smart device and reliable internet access. In outlying areas of the archipelago, estimates indicate this figure may be more than half. So, for millions of students, online school means no school. Putting aside the question of the effectiveness of online learning, particularly for younger students, the educational advancement for kids with no access to teachers and a classroom is clearly a big problem.
Third, are kids really being protected from the virus? Most families live in small, simple accommodations with little space at home. As a result, children head out to the streets, food stalls and sparse public spaces to play with no supervision of any health protocols. Meanwhile, while wealthier children may no longer go to class, they must stare at devices in solitude for hours. To combat boredom and loneliness, going out to a crowded mall has only been prevented for rare, short periods. In short, keeping schools closed does not stop kids from getting together, it simply means they do so informally with essentially zero regulation.
It would be insensitive to ignore the concerns of teachers. Of course, a room full of students poses a risk. But it is fair to ask if their concerns are unique compared to other workers like store clerks, to say nothing of health care workers. The pandemic has propelled businesses to allow vast segments of the economy to work from home. However, some jobs simply cannot be done remotely. And as much as educational professionals have adapted, severe limitations are posed by trying to teach via Zoom, especially in poorer communities lacking adequate connectivity.
Doing virus testing on children also is not fun, but we should do more of it, using rapid antigen tests to screen for the virus. Schools should be able to identify and contain clusters when they happen. Keeping masks on kids may be difficult but it is necessary. This discipline must be enforced in schools without question. Vaccines also must absolutely be made available widely to children and especially teachers, who should have the same priority as health care workers, including for boosters. Subjecting your child to an injection is less troublesome than a childhood defined by lockdowns and poor learning during an ongoing pandemic. None of these circumstances are ideal, but face-to-face schooling is essential for Indonesia and indeed most countries. In short, the default position should be keeping schools open. The serious long-term educational and economic consequences are clear, and the social implications are less known but troubling.
If schools are kept open, a secondary question arises. What about families who do not want to send their send kids to school? In this case it is reasonable to support choice. In the era of COVID-19, the market has evolved to provide options for those who can exercise them. As an example, restaurants have opened for in-person dining, but most continue to provide delivery options for those who remain at home. For schools though, mixed classroom presentation generally yields unfavorable reviews; it is difficult for the teacher to balance the attention of those in the classroom with those online.
The most apparent solution seems to be differentiation. School administrators will be quick to protest of course, as this presents significant staffing and scheduling challenges. But the difficulties of a pandemic unprecedented in our lifetime requires resourcefulness not retreat. Splitting grades and teachers between online and in-person learning is complicated and probably in some cases disproportionate in regard to class size and teacher attention. But denying the opportunity to learn at all for so many is far the greater overall injustice.
Health experts have described the concept of a “risk budget” for those bewildered by these confusing times. The idea is that we should balance the cost of concern about COVID-19 exposure with the reward of doing something necessary. This is a choice we need to make, much as we set priorities for other things in life. Like with all budgets, each person, each family and each country will make different choices. All budgets involve difficult decisions. For Indonesia, the time has come to put open schools in the shopping cart.
* The writer is the managing director of AmCham Indonesia. The views expressed here are his own.