Every day, Nanda has to trudge two kilometers (1.2 miles) – one way – and climb a hill in her home village in West Sumatra to get a cellphone signal so she can attend remote classes during the coronavirus pandemic.
She and about 20 other students from an Islamic junior-high school in Agam, a regency in the Indonesian province, gather daily at the hilltop in search of a good signal. Then they hunch over their phones while participating in online classroom sessions, because their campus has been closed for months over public health concerns around COVID-19.
In the case of youngsters who live in more rural and remote areas of Southeast Asia’s largest country, poor mobile phone coverage and spotty internet connections – if such services are available at all – can force students like Nanda to higher ground as many schools nationwide remain shut amid the viral outbreak.
“We have to come here every day to learn and carry out assignments from the teacher. If you cannot get the signal here, you have to go up even more,” she told BenarNews during a recent interview.
“The whole situation is a hassle,” said Nanda who, like many Indonesians, goes by one name.
She has not attended any in-person classes since April, a month after the first COVID-19 case was detected in Indonesia.
“If it rains, we will all get wet. There is a small hut, but of course it can’t fit many people,” Nanda said.
Her schoolmate, Hauliati Debi, said she often attended classes or did her homework on the roadside, even though internet speeds were slower there than up the hill.
“I have no energy to climb. I have to settle for the very slow connection,” Debi told BenarNews.
Some of the students here are taken to the top of the hill by parents on their motorcycles.
“I have to come here to accompany the children for their safety. I come here every day, until classes are over. We spend up to two hours,” said Saprina Tati, the mother of one of the students.
About 320 families in Nanda’s village have no access to cellular signals in their homes, said Masril, the chief of the hamlet.
“It has been 75 years of independence, but things remain like this. We’re still far from having freedom of communications,” he told BenarNews.
Masril said he often complained about the lack of cellular coverage to local officials and cellular operators, but little had changed.
Agam Regent Indra Catri acknowledged the problem, saying that only a third of the regency had internet access.
“It’s true, there’s no coverage there. We have proposed a network since a long time ago. Operators can’t just build cell towers because they have to think about business viability,” Catri said.
The lack of cellular coverage and internet service was a problem not only for the people of Agam but those living in other parts of the sprawling archipelago.
“Now, because of the pandemic people need internet access. There’s a sudden need for all areas to be covered. Now we know that our infrastructure is not ready,” Catri said.
According to the Indonesian Internet Service Providers Association (APJII), the number of internet users in Indonesia stood at 171.2 million last year, or about 65 percent of the country’s population of around 265 million.
“This is a tip of the iceberg. Lack of internet [service] is only one problem. Another problem is a lack of devices. Not everyone has a laptop or things like that,” Catri told BenarNews.
Many schools in Indonesia began remote learning in March after authorities imposed social restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
In West Sumatra, authorities in all 19 regions of the province decided to implement remote-learning programs during the pandemic. Since July 13, four regions resumed in-person classes, but two of them have closed schools again after new cases of COVID-19 were found.
Schools in the town of Sawahlunto, which had conducted on-campus classes since early July, closed again this week because coronavirus cases were detected among families of some students, Mayor Deri Asta said, according to the state-run Antara news agency.
On Monday, the head of the country’s COVID-19 task force, Doni Monardo, announced that local authorities could allow schools in green and yellow zones to reopen, especially in areas where internet access is difficult.
Agam regency lies in the yellow zone, but, as of Friday, Nanda’s junior high-school had not yet reopened.
Meanwhile, according to the results of a survey by a private pollster that were published on Monday, around 80 percent of Indonesians favored reopening schools, even though COVID-19 cases in the country continued to climb.
The survey of 1,230 respondents, who were scattered in 123 villages in all of Indonesia’s 34 provinces, was conducted by the Cyrus Network polling firm.
On Friday, more than 108,300 COVID-19 cases and 5,131 deaths from the disease had been confirmed nationwide. In West Sumatra, home to 5.2 million people, had 947 confirmed cases with a provincial death toll of 33.
Earlier in July, Nadiem Makarim, the minister of education and culture, told legislators that online learning could be applied in tandem with in-person instruction even after the pandemic had passed.
“Remote learning will become permanent, not purely remote learning, but a hybrid model,” Nadiem said during a hearing before a House of Representatives’ committee on education.
“It’s our opportunity to introduce various kinds of efficiencies and technologies with software and applications, and opportunities for teachers and students to apply various hybrid models or school learning management systems are enormous,” he told lawmakers.
Nadiem said the difficulties experienced by teachers and students were challenges that needed to be resolved.
“Although now we all have difficulty adapting to remote learning, never in the history of Indonesia have we seen the number of teachers and parents experimenting to adapt to technology,” he said.
But Novi Irwan, chairman of the local council in Agam regency, worried that carrying on with remote learning for youths could lead to a “lost generation.”
“I feel pity for those children who have no internet access, not to mention the lack of equipment. What we need to do now is how to try to turn areas into green zones so that remote learning is no longer necessary," Irwan said.