As Indonesia began the new school year this month, face-to-face classes were still on hold. Most primary and secondary students in the public system are still required to join lessons online.
No in-depth research has been done on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on educational institutions in Indonesia but it is likely that Islamic boarding schools, or pesantren, are the worst affected, not least because most are simply not able to teach online.
I asked managers at 150 pesantren in several regions across Indonesia about their experiences during the pandemic. All were part of a network run by the Centre for Study of Islam and Society (PPIM) at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University (UIN) Jakarta, where I work.
My brief survey produced some interesting results. Unlike state schools, many pesantren have already reopened to students for face-to-face learning. This is true even in regions regarded as Covid-19 “red zones”, like Jakarta and East Java. Pesantren managers said they reopened because of pressure from parents who wanted their children to return as soon as possible.
But there were other reasons for re-opening, too, and one of the most important relates to the unique character of pesantren as community business institutions as well as religious educators. “Pesantren have to think about the economic realities of people whose livelihoods depend heavily on the school operating, such as teachers, traders who supply goods, and the surrounding communities who open food stalls and other businesses to meet the needs of the boarders,” one manager said.
The unique character of pesantren also explains why they have been hit harder by Covid-19 than other schools, especially state schools.
First, as one manager complained, the funding for pesantren education comes mainly from student fees and community donations. “At state schools it is easier because the teachers’ salaries are paid by the government. Pesantren cannot pay wages if there are no boarders.” Considering that many students at these schools are from underprivileged backgrounds, with families likely suffering the heavy economic impacts of Covid-19, we can assume that this will have affected pesantren revenues too.
Second, in the new Law on Pesantren (No. 18 of 2019), pesantren are described as having five distinctive structures: 1) kyai (Islamic scholars and religious leaders) as figures of scholarly authority; 2) the mosque as the centre of activity for religious teaching; 3) santri, or boarders, who study in the pesantren; 4) a curriculum based on kitab kuning, or classic Islamic scholarly texts, and on Islamic studies; and 5) dormitories for the students.
This means education in pesantren takes place not only in the classroom, but in also everyday interactions, while playing sport, and while sharing space in the dormitories. This is what another manager meant when he said: “In pesantren, we practice 24-hour education.” It means official advice to practice physical distancing to prevent the spread of Covid-19 has not been easy for pesantren managers to apply in reality, especially at the many pesantren where there are lots of students but only limited dormitory facilities.
Third, pesantren have very limited capacity to make use of information technology and conduct online learning. Most have very little information technology infrastructure, and the digital literacy of teachers and students is often weak. In fact, in many of these schools, students are not even allowed to use gadgets like mobile phones and laptops, as they are considered distractions. In any case, many students’ families cannot afford electronic devices, even for learning purposes.
Gontor under pressure
So how have pesantren fared in practice? One notable example is the well known Gontor Modern Pesantren in Ponorogo, East Java, which saw a cluster of Covid-19 cases, starting from a single student who was infected via his family. According to the school’s Covid-19 spokesperson, Adib Fuadi Nuriz, all students and teachers who contracted the virus have fully recovered and have since returned to the pesantren.
Students returning to Gontor in the new school year have had to self-quarantine at home for 14 days and undergo a PCR test before being allowed back. The school also arranged special transport to pick up students from cities across Indonesia to prevent the risk of contracting the virus on the road.
Once they arrive at the pesantren, students are required to follow health protocols, such as wearing masks, washing their hands regularly and practicing physical distancing when praying.
What is interesting about this case is that Gontor Modern is likely the most modern, best-equipped and well-prepared pesantren in Indonesia, complete with strict health protocols and its own Covid-19 taskforce. Despite this, 86 students still contracted Covid-19. What must the situation be like for other pesantrens that are nowhere near as well funded or well prepared?
The Gontor Modern case is a warning that Islamic boarding schools across Indonesia urgently need help. The government has already allocated Rp 2.3 trillion (AU$215 million) to help pesantren tackle Covid-19, but considering the risks they face, these funds will be stretched very thin.
The Covid-19 crisis has demonstrated that the government now needs to work closely with pesantren to develop a roadmap for handling unexpected challenges. It has also exposed a desperate need to raise digital literacy and access to information technology in pesantren, while still protecting the special character of these schools.