Just over a week after Prime Minister Hun Sen called for a partial reopening of schools, some have already done so while others plan to follow suit.
Though a spokesman of the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport told CamboJA he has no updates regarding school reopenings in the provinces, several provincial and local authorities told CamboJA of their ongoing initiatives to open schools through this month. Though these officials outlined different timelines for their schools, all were similar in mandating health measures and targeting institutions in areas without cases of COVID-19 infection, a stipulation passed down from the prime minister.
In Kratie province, Lay Bora, director of the provincial Department of Education Youth and Sport, said a range of educational institutions from university to primary education levels are in a potential group that could soon reopen but are currently awaiting a final decision from the Ministry of Education.
Those provincial schools, selected at a September 4 meeting of department leaders and other provincial administrators, include the University of Kratie, about a dozen secondary and high schools, and 252 primary schools of the total 286.
Bora told CamboJA that while most institutions are awaiting the Education Ministry’s permission, some schools in rural areas with no COVID-19 cases have already been allowed to open their doors, provided they follow health and safety guidelines including reduced class sizes.
“We are now busy cleaning up the school environments so that we can be ready when the ministry gives us permission to open class,” Bora said.
Authorities in Preah Sihanouk province are making similar steps toward reopening schools there.
Provincial administration spokesman Kheang Phearom told CamboJA that officials decided on September 6 to undergo a phased reopening of schools. The first phase will include five public schools in five different districts and cities with a target date of September 13 to begin.
“Some more will follow later on if nothing serious happens,” Phearom said. “The main aims of this current reopening are to facilitate ninth and twelfth graders who will have their national exams soon.”
Phearom told CamboJA that the chosen schools need to strictly follow health standards that include regular COVID-19 testing. Full vaccination against the virus will also be required for both teachers and students to be allowed into schools.
Cambodia first closed all private and public educational institutions across the country in March 2020, at the onset of the pandemic, until November of that year. Schools reopened then for a few months but were then closed after the period of community transmission referred to as the February 20 event, which began the ongoing viral outbreak.
The push right now to reopen schools comes after the August 31 release of an audio message from Hun Sen ordering Education Minister Hang Chhoun Naron to work with municipal and provincial authorities to evaluate the feasibility of school reopening in areas not at risk of COVID-19 infection.
Educators and students who spoke to CamboJA said they were looking forward to being back in brick-and-mortar schools.
In the Prey Nop district of Preah Sihanouk province, Veal Renh High School director Ngiem Sidara told CamboJA that reopening the school will have a major positive impact for students in terms of learning outcomes. He didn’t doubt that online learning plays an important role in sustaining education during the pandemic but said students cannot fully concentrate on distance learning for such an extended period of time. Being unable to return to a physical classroom causes students stress and anxiety, Sidara said.
‘’Reopening school is a good time for both students and teachers to strengthen what they have learned online since students cannot receive 100% of what they have been taught through digital platforms,” he said.
Ngo Pichmorokort, a 12th grade student, said she was excited to hear that schools may soon reopen, explaining that she has suffered both physically and mentally during the period of online learning.
‘’To me, online learning is absolutely boring since it does not have human interaction as we do in physical class. And when there is a question that pops up regarding the lesson, I cannot ask for clarification. This is a common problem for all of us,” Pichmorokort told CamboJA. ‘’Spending too much time on online learning somehow can cause me stress, which possibly could lead to sleeping problems and headaches.”
However, not everyone is as pleased with the news of coming reopenings. Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association President Ouk Chhayavy said she personally is not so welcoming of the plan to reopen schools at this time while there is no clear indication from the Ministry of Health showing that now is the right time to do so. At the moment, she said, there is no guarantee of which places have low risk of COVID-19, given the easy movement of people through the country.
“Online learning possibly could not deliver the same outcome as physical class, but for now public health should be put as the first priority,” Chhayavy said.
On Tuesday, the Ministry of Health reported 511 new cases of COVID-19 and 11 deaths, bringing the total count to 96,339 cases, of which 15,981 have been imported since the beginning of the pandemic.