A long delay in reopening schools will have a long-term negative impact on Cambodia

Students leave a primary school as the government announced the closure of education institutions over the outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus in Phnom Penh on March 14, 2020. TANG CHHIN Sothy / AFP

In mid-March, as the number of Covid-19 cases was rising in Cambodia and around the world, the government of Cambodia announced that schools across the country would be closed



Following recent requests for a partial school reopening by the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association, The Ministry of Education Youth and Sport (MoEYS) responded saying schools should open no later than November. In mid-May, Prime Minister Hun Sen officially agreed with MoEYS’ timeline. 



The weeks since schools were shuttered have helped to reveal the true nature of this pandemic. It has not been just a health crisis. It has been an economic, social and educational crisis as well. And what’s more, these crises have had unequal consequences—with the poor feeling the impacts the hardest. 



Poor students, largely concentrated in rural areas, have struggled to keep up with electronic learning, and not for lack of intellectual aptitude. In a report from the Khmer Times, students lamented their internet connectivity issues, lack of access to required technological equipment, lack of experience navigating these online education platforms, as well as the sheer cost of having to keep internet data constantly topped up. 



These worries facing students weigh on their parents as well. Parents with younger children are finding their ability to work limited because, even while learning online, their children require heavy supervision. And, in an interview with VOD, some parents of older children are highly concerned their idle children might turn to drugs or drinking in the absence of the structure classroom learning provides. 



Negative ramifications in terms of grades and results for many of these students seem inevitable. While the Minister has said there will be proper assessment done and extra lessons offered before the next national exam, controversy seems unavoidable among those who will go on to fail, especially for the grade 12 students. These results obviously have long-term implications for these students’ future study and job prospects. 



Reopening schools sooner would help to resolve a number of pressing issues. It would obviously allow the millions of students struggling on the wrong end of the digital divide to return to a measure of educational stability.



And, for private schools, which have contended with protests from parents regarding school fees, reopening the schools would help solve these controversies between parents and schools. For these private schools, reopening also means financial solvency since the government doesn't have a plan to bail out or subsidize parents or schools.



Hundreds of private schools, educational and training institutions around Cambodia are at risk of bankruptcy, according to reporting by the Khmer Times, if the ban on in-person schooling remains for many more months since the government has not had a plan to bail out or subsidize either parents or teachers like other countries. So far, the government has only called for landlords to discount its fee given that it’s the most financial concern for private schools.



And there’s actually some compelling evidence that reopening schools and keeping them open can be done without increasing risk of infection for students and adults. A study led by researchers at University College London, for example, found that the evidence to support school closures in the face of an outbreak like Covid-19 is actually weak. 



The team of researchers used data from 16 studies of other coronavirus outbreaks—including the 2003 Sars epidemic—and found that school closures did not help control the epidemic. Experts who reviewed this study said it raised doubts over whether the public health benefits of school closures outweigh the social and economic costs imposed on students and their families.



And the status quo of closed schools has not exactly been a foolproof method for promoting social distancing. Many school-aged adolescents and even adults are still socializing in public. And, ironically, MoEYS even went so far as to ask teachers and non-teaching school staff to go door to door talking to parents about how to access and use online learning without keeping distance. 



Should Cambodia decide to reopen schools, the country would not be alone in doing so. 



Many countries have begun to gradually resume in-person schooling including China, Germany, Denmark, Taiwan, Sweden, Spain and Italy, also Austria, Norway, France, Israel, Japan. Some schools in England are scheduled to reopen early on June 1



Singapore is the first Asean country to partially reopen its schools. Similarly in neighboring countries, Vietnam called for students to go back to school starting May 4, and Laos on May 18. Plans to reopen in the coming months are moving forward in Thailand, Myanmar, Brunei and the Philippines. Even Indonesia, which reported the highest death rate in East Asia, will start to reopen parts of the economy including schools in early June. Teachers in Malaysia have been called to start preparing to reopen schools last week while waiting for the minister to officially announce the reopening date.



Cambodia's Covid-19 outbreak appears to be one of the mildest in the region. More than a month has passed with just two new official cases, of the 122 people who tested positive with the virus, all have fully recovered. (MoH on Saturday) The question, therefore, must be asked: why remain completely online until November given the long-term negative impacts?





Reopening obviously won’t be without big challenges. Many public schools, for example, lack access to clean water and soap for students to wash their hands, particularly in rural and remote parts of the country. If these schools were to reopen, the government would need to purchase and stock them with sanitizer gel and sprays during this period. It must be noted, also, that lack of water and sanitation facilities in these schools is a major public health risk even in non-pandemic times, and Covid-19 merely shows how critical these facilities truly are. 



But there are steps that can be taken that would alleviate some concerns regarding reopening, from the government and from the public. The government, for example, could regulate the schools that are allowed to reopen, allowing only the schools and universities that can ensure small class sizes to reopen.



In the meantime, as the school closure stretches on, there is important work MoEYS could be doing to mitigate some of the negative impacts of this period. 



The first would be to assess the effectiveness of e-learning. MoEYS should develop a clear roadmap for implementation of e-learning by aligning educational objectives, standards, curricula, assessments, interventions, and professional development across the country. 



Distance learning is a resource that may be very useful to Cambodia’s education system even after the pandemic is over. The government should, therefore, invest in better tools and technologies, and ensure their effectiveness for teachers as well as students. These tools should have been tested and maintained before a crisis like this one unfolded. After all, it will never make sense to build a gate when the cow has already been lost.



As this pandemic continues, education must be a top priority for the government, in spending, in planning, and in practice. The work of recovering this lost time in the educational lives of Cambodia’s students must begin now, before further damage is done. 



Touch Sambath is a Young Research Fellow of Future Forum, an independent public policy think tank based in Phnom Penh. Currently, he is undertaking a research project on decentralization of education reform in Cambodia.


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