Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Awaiting school reopenings, rural students turn to at-home learning solutions

Children in the Baset district of Kampong Speu province read books borrowed from mobile libraries operated by the NGO World Vision. Photo taken September 7. World Vision
Children in the Baset district of Kampong Speu province read books borrowed from mobile libraries operated by the NGO World Vision. Photo taken September 7. World Vision

As schools continue to reopen in parts of the country, parents, teachers and non-governmental organizations are pushing for more-effective home learning for young students still out of class in rural areas of Cambodia.

In-person learning has started again in low-risk areas after an August 31 order by Prime Minister Hun Sen released via audio message prompted city and provincial leaders to work with the Education Ministry to partially reopen secondary and high schools. But not all pupils are able yet to go back to school and, as rural students face difficulties accessing online classes due to lesser access to the internet and other technical materials, their parents and educators are looking for solutions to keep them from being left behind.

According to a Unicef report released earlier this month, 3 million Cambodian children have been unable to physically go to school since the start of the pandemic, a downturn that threatens to roll back years of educational progress.

That’s where programs such as the mobile library initiative of educational NGO World Vision have stepped in to fill a need.

Prum Rithy, a technical specialist with World Vision, told CamboJA the mobile libraries aim to help children living in rural areas as they are more likely than urban counterparts to have difficulty accessing online learning. Rithy said the project began in early March of this year and has been providing services to primary school students in nine different provinces.

‘’Research conducted before starting this project found out that up to 36 percent of children do not have enough study materials and another 38.7 percent cannot afford technical accessibilities to get access to online learning,” said Rithy.

Rithy said the project has helped more than 110,000 children continue reading and stay on their academic track even while unable to go to school for the time being.

Though the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport has worked to create online learning materials for public schools, not all students are able to access them. And for those who do, there’s no guarantee how much of these lessons they’ll absorb.

Ouk Chhayavy, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association, said online classes have raised some crucial challenges for children even as they’ve helped address issues presented by pandemic conditions. Chhayavy, who is not affiliated with the mobile libraries, said spending too much time learning online may affect students’ physical health. As there is no human interaction to online schooling, she added, students often cannot fully concentrate on what they are being taught, potentially leading to poor academic performance.

‘’Online learning does not really bring out good results, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, we do not have any better choices,” said Chhayavy.

Volunteer staff deliver books to children in the Baset district of Kampong Speu province. Photo taken September 7.World Vision

Distance education has been an uneasy fit for many, but as vaccinations for youth continue to expand across the country, the shift back to in-person learning has ramped up.

The Education Ministry announced on Tuesday that 9,800 schools nationwide, including 3,300 kindergarten schools, 5,000 primary schools, 1,000 secondary schools, and 500 high schools, have resumed classes.  In that announcement, Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron stated that 78 percent of children aged between six and 12 have been vaccinated, a figure that enables the Education Ministry to partially reopen in-person learning.

The ministry also announced that day its intent to provide learning materials to a total of about 750,000 first and second grade students in 7,304 primary schools across the country. With support from the Capacity Development Partnership Fund, these materials are aimed at helping young students to learn at home while schools remain closed.

Education Ministry spokesman Ros Soveacha told CamboJA the ministry welcomes and appreciates the cooperation of the private sector and development partners in helping to improve the quality of education and strengthening health and safety for teaching and learning during the COVID-19 era.

Other educational workers reported that assistance from partner organizations was helping to preserve childrens’ literacy skills even where schools remain shut.

Sok Udom is a librarian at Phnom Pit Primary School in Kampong Speu and works with World Vision on the mobile library project. Udom said children in his community now choose to spend their time reading books rather than wasting it while out of class. Udom said local children were initially hesitant to borrow from the mobile library out of a lack of familiarity but now he says they wait for his teammates and ask for more books. Udom said the library can lend as many as 130 books within a week.

‘’They [children] told me that they want more books to read. I was so impressed with that. I first thought they cannot finish two in a week, but it appears that they ask us to let them borrow three or four in a week. They said they have read it repeatedly throughout the whole week and patiently wait for new books,” said Udom.

Noun Sothy, who is the director of Trapeang Khlok village in the Baset district of Kampong Speu province, told CamboJA he is a bit jealous of city kids that have plenty of choices to keep up their studies while children in his village do not have any extra reading materials beside their textbooks. That was the situation even before COVID-19 and, as pandemic closures wear on in some parts of the country, educational conditions are getting worse for children with little access to online materials.

‘’The kids really want to learn but they do not have any documents, so what can they do?” Sothy told CamboJA, adding that the mobile libraries have helped dramatically. “Since the project came in, everything has changed completely. The kids now enjoy reading what they like and are active in learning something new every day. With this, their parents also started paying attention to their child’s learning activities.”

Preah Sihanouk resident Pheng Chamnan is one such parent. Though Chamnan has not encountered the mobile library, she believes parents have an important role in helping their children overcome obstacles to education. She says online learning can bring out different results depending on each individual and has taken steps to encourage her two children to read at home.

‘’I bought my children books and encouraged them to do self-study. And as I noticed, my oldest daughter who is now studying at grade two is doing well in terms of academic performance,” said Chamnan.