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Students to miss start of new year as migrant workers quarantine in schools near border

Cambodian migrant workers returning from Thailand are quarantined at a high school in Battambang province in a photo posted to the provincial administration's Facebook page.
Cambodian migrant workers returning from Thailand are quarantined at a high school in Battambang province in a photo posted to the provincial administration's Facebook page.

Thousands of students in the northwest will miss the beginning of the new school year next week, with at least ten schools along the border having been converted into Covid-19 quarantine centers for migrant workers returning from Thailand, officials said.

Schools across the country are set to reopen on January 11 following a year of interruptions but with migrants still flowing across the border from Thailand and thousands still in quarantine, many students will be forced to continue online learning, or miss class altogether, raising concern amongst parents and teachers. 

Officials in Battambang province – where five high schools and four primary schools currently house migrant workers – plan to have some schools, including Preah Monivong High School, open by January 18, but the wait could be longer for others, officials said.

“The students who study at schools being used as quarantine centers will need to learn online and the schools will provide some documents for them,” Yi Songky, director of the provincial education department said, adding that about 6,000 students were affected.

“We will be flexible based on the situation of migrant workers returning to Cambodia.”

Thousands of Cambodians have streamed across the border since a new Covid-19 outbreak in the Thai province of Samut Sakhon, with authorities ordering mandatory 14-day quarantine at government-run facilities along the border.

According to a Health Ministry statement, released on Wednesday, a Cambodian migrant worker, who returned from Thailand on January 2, was positive for COVID-19, bringing the number of returned migrant workers with the disease to 18.

After a stop-start year for schools in Cambodia – including all Grade 12 students being given high schools certificate without having to sit a test amid concerns, echoed around the world, over the quality and accessibility of online learning – January 11 was supposed to offer a clean slate for students. 

But in Oddar Meanchey province, where more than 2,000 migrant workers have returned since the Samut Sakhon outbreak about three weeks ago, three schools will remain closed to students when the rest return, said deputy governor Dy Rado.

With the last of the migrant workers to receive Covid-19 test results on January 16, it remains unclear when Decho Sen Samraong High School, Hun Sen Oddar Meanchey High School and Anlong Veng Primary School will be safe for students to return, he said.

“Provincial authorities are considering how many days that those schools will postpone,” Rado said.

Six schools in Battambang are still housing migrant workers and will remain closed until further notice, according to provincial spokesman Soeum Bunrith; while Ly Sary, spokesman for the Banteay Meanchey provincial government, said he was not sure how many of the 12 quarantine centers there were in schools.

About 1,000 students from the Decho Sen Samraong High School in Oddar Meanchey will attend the opening of the new school year at a nearby school but then be relegated to online learning, which was not possible for all, said Kin Theara, a teacher.

“Some students’ families do not have the ability to use the internet. So we only have one option: we provide them paper lessons every week and they study from home,” he said.

Parents across Cambodia – and the world – have expressed doubts over the effectiveness of online learning as Covid-19 has interrupted schooling throughout 2019, with students disengaged, disinterested and more easily distracted from lessons.

“I am concerned when my son studies online, because he needs to have the phone in his hand all day,” said Ham Sokunthea, whose son is set to start Grade 11 next week via online learning, with his school still functioning as a quarantine center.

“There are no teachers around … and I do not know whether he studies or plays games,” she said.