With in-person school closed and her family facing worsening financial difficulties, Sopey decided to drop out of ninth grade in Preah Sihanouk province last year to become a garment worker in order to support her family. Speaking in a miserable voice, Sopey — now 17 — said in an interview that she badly wishes she could return to school.
‘’I left school last year when I was in grade nine as things were not going well. My mother was sick and still is. Therefore, I needed to drop out of school and take responsibility to take care of my old parents because they do not have any jobs,” said Sopey.
The pandemic has seen an increase in the dropout rate as struggling families pull younger children out to save money on school fees, or simply because they have been unable to afford the tools needed for remote schooling. Older children like Sopey, meanwhile, are being pulled from school to support families at a time of reduced income. In the 2019/2020 school year, the dropout rate for primary school students was 6.8 percent, compared with 4.4 percent the previous year. For lower secondary school students (grades 7 to 9), the dropout rate is increased from 15.8 percent to 18.6 percent. The dropout rate for upper secondary (10-12) remained the same at 16.9 percent.
It has been almost one-year-and-a-half since Sopey left school to work in a garment factory. Sopey told CamboJA that working in the factory is particularly difficult for someone so young. She works from 7am to 4pm, often staying later to earn overtime.
‘’Working is not easy like studying. I really want to get back to school,” said Sopey.
Sixteen-year-old Bunthoeun also dropped out of school during the pandemic. Bunthoeun said he left school when he was in grade nine, leaving his hometown in Preah Sihanouk province for work as a delivery person in Phnom Penh.
‘’My academic performance was not so good even when I was learning at school. And it became even worse when class moved online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, I decided to come to Phnom Penh to work,” said Bunthoeun.
Soeur Bonsom, the secretary of Tuol Tor Teung secondary school in Preah Sihanouk province told CamboJA that the student dropout rate has been increasing since the start of the pandemic, with the highest dropout rates in grades 8 and 9.
‘’The dropout rate has been increasing by around five to ten percent compared to when there was no COVID-19 pandemic,” said Bunsom. ‘’There are three main reasons that enable them to do so and one of those is family’s financial incomes. With this, the shortage of technical accessibility as well as social norms also push them to leave school.”
Schools nationwide first closed for in-person learning in March 2020, with many staying closed until late September 2021. Though some remain closed, on September 28, the Education Ministry announced that 9,800 schools nationwide had reopened, including 3,300 kindergarten schools, 5,000 primary schools, 1,000 secondary schools, and 500 upper secondary schools. In that announcement, Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron stated that a high percentage of children aged between six to twelve have been vaccinated, a figure that enabled the Education Ministry to partially reopen in-person learning. As of October 15, 90.20 percent of 12 to 18-year-olds have been almost fully vaccinated, and 97.08 percent of 6 to 12-year-olds have been partially vaccinated.
Heng Vanra, a math teacher at Peam Chileang high school in Tboung Khmum province said his school — which remains closed — has also seen high dropout rates. Poor families with little extra cash have struggled to afford enough mobile data or wi-fi, let alone mobile phones or computers, for their children to access online schooling. Vanra said as long as classes are conducted online, more and more students will likely quit their studies
‘’I do not know what else we can do to stop them from leaving school, but I hope the school will be reopened soon,” said Vanra.
He estimated that just 30 percent of his class have been attending online classes amid the difficulties caused by COVID-19.
Cambodia Independent Teachers’ Association president Ouk Chhayavy told CamboJA that the rising dropout rate will affect Cambodia’s human resource development. She said no matter how hard the Ministry Education has tried to deal with the issue she said, they have not found a way to prevent dropouts.
‘’Students are struggling academically and financially during the COVID-19 crisis so that it leaves them no choice but to quit their studies,” said Chhayavy.