Private schools across Cambodia are struggling to stay afloat amid a seemingly endless school closure following the February 20 COVID-19 community outbreak. Many private schools, especially primary schools and provincial schools, have been forced to completely close down operations due to the severe financial crisis caused by the pandemic.
A number of senior figures from the private education sector have called on the government to consider reopening schools, but there has so far been little indication that that will happen, with one government spokesperson describing reopening as “impossible”.
Chea Ravy, an executive director of a private primary school in Phnom Penh, told CamboJA that they had been forced to shut down multiple branches of the school due to financial problems. Ravy requested that her school not be named for risk of negatively affecting the institution’s reputation.
“The company was running smoothly until COVID-19 came and hit us hard,” she said. “Since then, income has fallen sharply when schools were ordered to close in order to stop the spread of the virus. We cannot conduct classes online because most of our students are aged between three to six years old only. We have no income at all. Therefore, we are forced to fully close our company’s operations.”
According to Ravy, her company spent around $39,225 a month before COVID-19. But afterwards, the total expenses fell to $9,397 since the company laid off some employees and suspended two branches in the provinces. The other three branches in Phnom Penh continued operations until the start of July, when they could no longer support themselves. Facing five months of no income, the company took out loans to keep the doors open, hoping the situation would get better. It has not.
Even if the COVID-19 situation improves, Ravy said, she doesn’t want to stay in education.
“It is a big loss,” she said. “I cannot accept seeing what I have disappear in just one year. I feel so desperate now, and do not want to do anything.”
Ravy’s school is not the only one that has been struggling. According to Pech Bolen, president of the Education Services Federation of Cambodia and CEO of Westline Education Group, about fifty private schools — half its membership — have fully closed, reduced or suspended their operations.
“More and more private schools, especially at the primary level, have shut down one after the other due to the severe financial crisis,” he said.
“Some of them have borrowed loans from the bank, hoping to survive in this critical time until schools are allowed to reopen. But sadly, COVID-19 remains a concerning problem and the overall situation is getting worse now.”
Bolen told CamboJA that if schools cannot be reopened, more private schools will have no choice but to close their doors.
“Primary schools and province-based schools are the two actors that have faced many more difficulties than others,” he said. “Because classes cannot be conducted online due to the internet accessibility and technical literacy.”
Uk Chhayavy, president of the Cambodian Independent Teacher Association (CITA), said that the government has an essential role to play in helping the private education sector during this hard time.
“I personally think the Ministry of Education alone cannot get the job done, but the government should intervene in finding effective solutions to help them,” she said. “For example, most of the private schools do not own their own building, so the government should cooperate with the relevant parties to request a lower [rental] price.”
Ministry of Education spokesperson, Ros Sovacha told CamboJA that he did not have any new information regarding private schools’ financial struggles. He said that the ministry had virtually met with education sector stakeholders on June 23 to discuss the possibility of reopening schools. So far, though, no decision has been made.
“The ministry understands the difficulties of the private sector operating during COVID-19,” he said. “But based on the current situation, reopening schools is impossible.”
Cambodia recorded 933 new cases of COVID-19 and 26 deaths on Saturday alone, raising the total to 59,978 cases and 881 deaths.
With little hope of schools reopening soon, the sector has had to take its own steps to stay alive. Bolen said that he has decided to cut 20 percent to 30 percent of his staff’s salaries to keep revenue from falling further, accompanied by similar discounts on tuition to help students whose parents are struggling financially.
“Most private schools have discounted school tuition,” he said. “Some schools have lost a number of students due to financial difficulties and fear of contracting COVID-19.”
Not all schools have reduced the cost of tuition during this crisis. Hut Naiseang, whose children study at a private school in Phnom Penh, said that she has paid the full price of the school tuition while her two sons are learning online.
“There is no discount,’’ she told CamboJA. “Online learning is not the same as actual class, and I am hoping to see schools reopened so that my sons can keep their learning in a good direction. Now, they have no concentration, they do not pay attention to their studies at all.”
According to a Unicef report released on June 10, prolonged school closures have had a significant impact not just on children’s skills earning prospects, but also on their physical and mental health. While online education can guarantee some continuity of learning for some children, the report said, these services are no substitute for in-person attendance.
“Despite the obvious costs of school closures, many countries are still reluctant to reopen, citing fears of further transmission,” the report read. “But our focus now should be on using what we know about COVID-19 and children to work towards the safe reopening of schools.”