Educational Disparity and the COVID-19 Pandemic in Indonesia

How an unseen enemy tears apart the education sector

In the midst of the COVID-19 Pandemic in Indonesia, President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) calls for Indonesians to “work from home, study from home, and pray from home.”[1] This policy effectively sends Indonesia’s 68 and 3,2 million students and teachers into their home. [2] It signals the start of the distance learning policy or PJJ as the Ministry of Education calls it. However, in its implementation, distance learning in Indonesia largely ignores the educational disparity between urban-rural areas in Indonesia. In rural areas, schools are forced to limit their activities due to student’s lack of access to internet and economic condition during the pandemic.

The impact of COVID-19 on the education sector have largely gone unnoticed until recently teachers started to complain about their difficulties on carrying out distance learning and Indonesia’s Minister of Education, Nadiem Makarim, gave out a statement that he was shocked to know that some areas in Indonesia stil does not have access to electricity. [3] Now, the ministry have started discussions on further responses including creating a temporary curriculum or delaying the next school semester.

How the COVID-19 Pandemic Disrupted Indonesia’s Education Sector

Since Jokowi’s instruction to study from home, students and teachers are told to substitute traditional classroom interaction with virtual chatroom and teleconference. In doing so they are forced to replace schools with bedrooms and family living room to continue their study. This massive disruption in learning environment affect every aspect on how education as a process operates. Teachers, schools, and even parents need to adapt to this new situation in order to give as much stability as possible for students to continue learning. In big, urban cities such as Jakarta, teleconference and chatrooms become the new norm for teachers to continue the learning process and send students homework, respectively. Meanwhile, smaller cities and rural areas does not have the privilege of virtual learning and teachers started to work with what they have, including the risk of violating physical distancing by going door to door to their student’s home.

For Alodia, a Junior High School student who lives in a remote village in Petir B, Yogyakarta, continuing her study means trekking up and down a hill in her village everyday to receive and send homeworks given by her teacher. [4] Alodia’s story is only one of the many stories of educational disparity in rural areas where internet access has been lacking. Moreover, economic condition of families is another variable that we need to take into account when we talk about education during this difficult time.

SMERU Research Institute conducted a research mapping the various economic growth projection (blue bar) along with its corresponding increase in poverty (yellow bar) in Indonesia.[5] In its worst scenario (1% growth), poverty will increase by 12,37% or approximately 8,5 million more people who become poor. If we put that number into the context of families and education, a massive increase in poverty will potentially have a significant impact on students’ capability to continue their education and widen the gap of educational disparity between students in Indonesia.

In addition to SMERU’s research, Statistics Indonesia, or the Central Bureau of Statistics (BPS), also published a data on how economic status affect the total average years of education for students 15 years above. In their research, BPS classifies economic status into five categories with 1 as the lowest and 5 highest. There are several interesting points from the graph. First, those of the highest category (kuintil 5) has double the years of education compared to the students from the lowest category (kuintil 1). Second, the highest jump in years of education happens from category 4 to 5 which is 2,2 years. Third, the lowest economic status number of 6,6 years is approximately equivalent to attaining a diploma while the highest is comparable to attaining a doctoral degree, an enormous disparity. Lastly, The longer the pandemic goes, the potential for increase in school drop-outs looms over students in indonesia as families will start to crumble under extreme economic pressure.

The combination of increase in unemployment (1,7 million as of may 1st, 2020 according to Manpower Ministry) and the potential increase in poverty in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak is a scary threat to Indonesia’s education in the short and long term. The COVID-19 outbreak will affect every aspect of Indonesia’s education sector including schools as an educational institution. Even now some schools already complained about overdue montly tuitions while parents said that they need the money for daily sustenance during the pandemic. [7] Moreover, marginalized and vulnerable groups in urban and rural areas will be hit even harder by the pandemic in terms of how much economic pressure they can take.

Photo by Yannis H on Unsplash

Distance Learning Barriers in Indonesia and Educational Disparity

The policy to study from home through distance learning method received several negative reactions from various groups including the teacher’s association. Schools in various levels of education started protesting about the difficulties they faced in conducting distance learning including universities where students complained that their lecturers were not interactive when teaching.[8] There are two main problems in effectively implementing distance learning in Indonesia.

First, limited or lack of access to internet. Several regions in Indonesia still lack proper and adequate access to internet and even electricity, specifically in frontier, outermost and least developed regions or usually referred as 3T (terdepan, terluar, tertinggal) regions. One of the foundations for an effective distance learning is a stable, adequate internet connections. It is a basic requirement that even some region in Java still lacks, a sign of a communication infrastructure requiring further improvement. Furthermore, when we consider the data on internet access, a wide digital divide exists between rural and urban regions.

Referring to Statistics Indonesia’s graph on Households with internet access, a 27% disparity gap existed between urban and rural regions when it comes to internet access. This digital divide is even more apparent if we consider provincial gap on internet penetration. Yogyakarta and Jakarta have a high percentage of 50% internet penetration. Meanwhile, Maluku Province, Central Sulawesi, West Nusa Tenggara, West Sulawesi, North Maluku, East Nusa Tenggara, and Papua still suffers from an internet penetration of under 50%.[9] This data strengthen the argument that distance learning will only exarcebates the problem of disparity in Indonesia’s education.

Statistics Indonesia also created a graph measuring internet usage between rural and urban regions. The graph shows that individual internet usage is considerably lower compared to the previous household data on internet access. Similar to the data on internet access, the wide gap between urban and rural regions still remained relatively large at 25%. However, several factors can influence the data on internet usage including demographic of a certain region, economic status, and digital literacy. If we take into account the data on a regional basis, North Maluku, East Nusa Tenggara, and Papua becomes the three lowest regions on internet usage with 25,8%, 21,1%, dan 19,59% respectively.[10]

The Innovation for Indonesia’s School Children (INOVASI) created a survey in the province of East Nusa Tenggara, West Nusa Tenggara, North Kalimantan, and East Java on the implementation of distance learning.[11] Among all the surveyed provinces, West Nusa Tenggara and East Nusa Tenggara are the lowest regions on the use of internet for distance learning with 7% and 4% respectively. So, the survey falls in line with the ICT Development index data where internet usage in East Nusa Tenggara is among the lowest in the country.

Eventually, where internet access fails them, teachers are the ones who steps in even if it means they have to meet the students in-person, as with the case of Fransiskus Xaverius Faimau, a teacher in North Central Timor regency, East Nusa Tenggara.[12] Indonesia’s lack of proper infrastructure on internet access have the potential to increase and exarcebates inequality and disparity of education on fringe provinces such as East Nusa Tenggara.

Second, another important foundation for an effective distance learning is the teacher themselves specifically on how fast they adapt to a new types of learning process including using the various tools for teleconference and virtual learning. Besides that, with the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers are also demanded to shrink the amount of learning material so that students are not overwhelmed as they can’t learn as they usually do during school hours.[13]

The pandemic has created a heavy emphasis on teacher’s ability to their students as creatively as they can within their capacity. However, the problems that students experienced in urban and rural regions are vastly different and so require different approaches from teachers and schools.

Students in cities and urban areas generally have no problem with access to stable internet connections. Instead, the main stumbling block usually lies with the economic conditions they are in as not all families can afford the money to buy internet packages.[14] Another problem comes from the learning process itself where student-teacher interaction becomes too static and students complained about not receiving feedback and explanations regarding their task and homework.[15] This problem stems from the unpreparedness of teachers to adapt to a great level of uncertainties during the pandemic and their lack of experience in using virtual meetings as medium for teaching.

For students in remote and rural regions, the problems do not even begin in how to do distance learning, but how to still have access to education and this affect both the student and the teacher. Schools in rural regions often does not have digital tools for virtual learning, students do not have access to stable internet and even if they do, they may not have the tools for accessing it or the money to buy internet packages. In this condition, there are no other ways for students to continue their study unless the teachers come to their homes everyday as in the case of Fransiskus Xaverius Faimau in East Nusa Tenggara. Regions where distance learning cannot be done needs special attentions from the local government to ensure the process is still done in a safe way for both students and teachers. They will also need help financially so that these regions are not falling even further behind or else we risk an even wider educational disparity after the pandemic.

Nadiem Makarim, Indonesia’s Minister of Education (CNN Indonesia/Andry Novelino)

Moving Forward: Reflecting the Government Responses

In the middle of April 2020, the Ministry of Education forged a cooperation with state-owned television and Radio, TVRI and RRI, where they hoped to spread their education program to students in remote areas and help teachers during distance learning. This effort needs to be commended as it is a really fast response from the government and it also signals that they realized a lot of students are unreachable by internet access or cannot afford it. However, some criticize the education programme that TVRI broadcasted is monotonous and outdated.[16] Television broadcast only solves half the problem as teachers still need to adapt themselves to the programme curriculum and not all students have access to TV in their home.

A special guideline for teachers during the pandemic is also (finally) released on 30 june, 2020 — 3 months into the pandemic. However, the guidelines largely offers advice on safety and health measures for schools who intended to start reopening classess for direct learning. As important as it is, the guidelines fails to touch upon the subject of learning process during the pandemic. Nowhere does it mention how teacher-student interactions should be carried out during distance learning or how grading should be done. To their defence, perhaps it is too technical or particular and drafting it will prove to be too divisive or difficult. So the burden once again falls to teachers to creatively navigate the barriers and walls that their students faced during this pandemic.

Wahanasa Visi Indonesia (WVI) did a survey to 3.000 children in 30 provinces from 2 until 21 April and found that these children experience emotional distress during distance learning.[17] They often felt isolated from their friendship, afraid, and bored from the often-monotonous nature of distance learning. Once again, it showed that TV broadcast from TVRI and most teachers do not have the capacity and capability to create an engaging study experience during the pandemic and it is through no fault of their own, as it is a systemic problem rather than individual.

The COVID-19 Pandemic shows that the education sector has not undergone the level of digitalization other industries have experienced. In practice, it is the private sector and startup companies such as Zenius and Ruangguru that are the pioneer of educational digitalization in urban cities. However, the beneficiaries of these technologies are still limited to cities while some rural regions especially from the frontier, outermost and least developed regions (3T) are yet to fully enjoy the technologies. Infrastructure development for rural areas needs to be continually improved especially cellphones reach and internet penetration for remote regions in Indonesia.

The Government and Ministry of Education needs to be careful not to underestimate the impact of this pandemic towards the education sector as it can have a significant impact on the gap of education on poor and vulnerable groups. Specific guidelines for teachers and school can also be created so they can better understand and adapt to teaching environment of the COVID-19 pandemic that takes into account students emotional well-being. The ministry should also put special attention on schools where its students face economic hardship as a result of the pandemic and provide assistance for teachers in remote regions where distance learning is not possible.

Finally, any effort during the pandemic should be focused on a student-based approach that addresses their specific needs as urban and rural regions require different assistance. The Digital divide between urban and rural regions should be carefully considerated in order to prevent a situation where disparity is worse than it was before the pandemic. As we all know, vulnerable groups will be disproportionately affected as they will face the brunt of the pandemic. A misshaps in managing the pandemic will rollback the progress Indonesia’s education sector has undertook and echo through many years to come.

Note: this is a translated work from the author’s article originally titled “Potret Pendidikan di Tahun Pandemi: Dampak COVID-19 Terhadap Disparitas Pendidikan di Indonesia” which was edited and published to CSIS Commentaries On the COVID-19 Pandemic which you can find here


[1] Antara, Jokowi: Saatnya bekerja, belajar, dan beribadah di rumah , ANTARA News, 15 Maret 2020.

[2] “Beda Sikap Nadiem dan Serikat Guru soal Belajar Selama Corona”, CNN Indonesia, 2 Mei 2020,

[3] Albertus Adit, ”Diskusi Mendikbud dan Najwa Shihab, Ini Dampak Positif-Negatif Corona di Dunia Pendidikan”, Kompas, 3 Mei 2020,

[4] Haris Firdaus, “Mendaki Bukit demi ”Menjaring” Ilmu ala Pelajar Gunung Kidul”, Komapas, 16 Mei 2020,

[5] Asep Suryahadi, Ridho Al Izzati, Daniel Suryadarma, “The Impact of COVID-19 Outbreak on Poverty: An Estimation for Indonesia”, SMERU Research Institute, April 2020, P. 8.

[6] Dwi Hadya Jayani, “Ketimpangan Pendidikan Antar-Kelompok Ekonomi Masyarakat RI” , Katadata, 5 November 2019,

[7] “Virus corona: Guru honorer jual barang, orang tua siswa tunggak iuran sekolah: ‘Mending untuk makan’”, BBC Indonesia, 4 Mei 2020,

[8] Elisabeth Rukmini, Maria M. W. Inderawati, “Riset: online learning sebagai masa depan pendidikan tinggi Indonesia selepas pandemi”, The Conversation, 12 Mei 2020,

[9] Data taken from ICT Development Index 2018, Statistics Indonesia

[10] Data taken from ICT Development Index 2018, Statistics Indonesia

[11] Senza Arsedy, George Adam Sukoco, dan Rasita Ekawati Purba, “Riset dampak COVID-19: potret gap akses online ‘Belajar dari Rumah’ dari 4 provinsi”, The Conversation, 2 Mei 2020,

[12] Made Anthony Iswara and Gemma Holliani Cahya, “Teachers go extra mile to teach students as schools remain closed”, The Jakarta Post, 9 June 2020,

[13] “FSGI Sebut Kualitas Pendidikan Indonesia Turun saat Corona”, CNN Indonesia, 2 Mei 2020,

[14] CNN Indonesia, “Tahun Ajaran Baru, KPAI Dorong Internet Gratis di Jam Belajar”, CNN Indonesia, 26 Juni 2020,

[15] “Virus corona: Tak semua pengajar, siswa siap terapkan ‘sekolah di rumah’”, BBC Indonesia, 18 Maret 2020,

[16] “Materi Program Belajar TVRI Dinilai ‘Jadul’ dan Tak Efektif”, CNN Indonesia, 4 Mei 2020,

[17] Feybien Ramayanti, “Home Sweet Home Tak Berlaku, Belajar Makin Sporadis dan Kaku”, CNN Indonesia, 8 Mei 2020,

Here to give and receive. Writes in Bahasa Indonesia and English.