In late May, school teachers in Battambang’s Samlout district realized students were struggling to cope with studying at home – either via videos posted on social media or the daily telecasts on state broadcaster TVK.
The Cambodian government had shut down all schools and educational institutions in March, on account of the increasing number of novel coronavirus cases. The government, which has struggled to provide quality public education, immediately transitioned to an at-home, online pedagogy.
But Samlout teachers noticed that students were unable to keep up with these educational videos or lacked access to smartphones and devices needed to access the content.
“My students’ parents told me that they don't have the time to supervise their children, so the children don't learn much from television,” said 25-year-old school teacher Soeun Sreynith.
“For some students, their parents have gone to Thailand, and they stay with their grandmother, who doesn't know about [newer] technology,” she added.
Soeun Sreynith is a teacher at Sre Andong Pi Primary School and was part of a group of teachers who conducted an informal survey in May to check the progress of their students.
The results showed that students were unable to effectively learn from television broadcasts, given that the information flow was unidirectional and there was rarely anyone at home to assist with the studies.
Additionally, rural families in the district rarely had access to smartphones nor were children allowed to keep the phones with them, even if the family had a spare phone.
Soeun Sreynith said school teachers and the principal decided that it was time to try a more innovative way to both observe the government’s school closure order but also ensure that students did not miss out on their education.
With the help of the survey, teachers were able to map the homes of all their students. They then correlated that with the locations of teachers’ homes, putting each teacher in charge of teaching and helping around 50 students.
The makeshift teaching schedule was quickly approved by local and Education Ministry officials, who according to Soeun Sreynith, also realized the shortcomings of the distance-learning efforts they had put in place.
“One of the measures the ministry has implemented is that we instructed [teachers] to form small study groups with less than 10 students, in accordance with the Ministry of Health’s measures for social distancing,” said Ros Soveacha, a spokesperson at the Education Ministry.
Soeun Sreynith said teachers were using their homes, empty market stalls, or public buildings to conduct around four-hour-long teaching sessions with students, limiting each interaction to less than 10 students.
As she was speaking to VOA Khmer in late June, six grade 2 students, wearing colorful and casual clothing, walked into Soeun Sreynith’s home at 1 p.m. in Boeung Ron village. The small classroom session is her fourth of the day, and Soeun Sreynith is exhausted.
“When we were teaching at the school, students used to come to find us,” she said. “Now we are going home to home to teach them.”
Cambodia has scrambled, much like other nations, to facilitate the continued education of students during the pandemic. The government has created a new state-owned channel to broadcast grade-specific lessons daily and streams similar grade-specific content on Facebook pages and YouTube.
The expectation has been that children will tune into these broadcasts and absorb their daily lessons. As is the case in Samlout, teachers found that technological barriers and a lack of supervision had hindered their students – a situation that put them at risk of likely never coming back to the classroom once schools reopen.
According to the Cambodia Education Response Plan to COVID-19 Pandemic released in July, coronavirus-related school closures had impacted more than 3.2 million students in the country, around 10,000 teachers and close to 14,000 schools.
The dropout rate for students in rural areas has been a challenge for the government. The Ministry of Education’s Statistics and Indicators 2015-2016 report showed the national dropout rate was at 4.6 percent for the primary level and 17 percent for lower secondary level.
Education indications from UNESCO show that 83.5 percent of students in 2018 were enrolled until the last grade of primary school, the rate dropping to 79 percent for male students.
A World Bank May 2020 report on education, which accompanied the Cambodia Economic Update, proposed that Cambodia should consider initiatives that can reduce the dropout rate by supporting students struggling to keep up with their work, especially in light of the current situation.
Hong Reaksmey, country director for Action Aid Cambodia, schools and teachers were putting in the effort to support their students, but that it was not a uniform experience across the country.
"Though there is an instruction from the ministry to the schools to visit students' houses and distribute teaching materials, not every school could implement that," he said.
He added, besides implementing strict health and hygiene measures, the Ministry should also establish additional training programs to support students who were unable to cope up with the online and distance learning pedagogy.
Soki Nita is one of the students who travels to meet Soeun Sreynith daily. Ty Linda is the mother of the eight-year-old and said the family has a smartphone for Soki Nita but no one to supervise her lessons.
Ty Linda and her husband are busy working all day, doing a variety of jobs, such as farming, rearing pigs, and making rice wine. This leaves little time to help Soki Nita, who wants to grow up and be a teacher.
"I couldn't teach her myself," Ty Linda said. “If I can keep a close eye on her, she would use the phone for studying, but if I were busy doing my household chores, then she would just switch the screen to cartoon channels.”
There has been uncertainty over when students across the country will be able to return to schools, with the government indicating that only 20 “high-standard” schools to reopen in August.
There has been little indication to suggest if the Education and Health Ministry will reopen public schools or conduct the critical national examination.
Back at Soeun Sreynith’s home, she is using the chalkboard her grandfather used when he was a teacher. When they decided to conduct the small, informal classrooms, she found it stashed in a corner of their home.
Her husband, Tak Saroum, also works at the same school. Tak Saroum said school officials first created accounts for all teachers on messaging application Telegram, which is commonly used by the government for communication.
But, after joining the application, teachers soon realized hardly any students or parents used Telegram.
“There are some Facebook users, but most of the time there is no internet service,” said Tak Saroum.
As the six students in her home study, Soeun Sreynith is concerned about their progress, admitting that many had fallen behind in writing and comprehension of lessons.
“Because schools have been closed since March, they have been writing very slowly,” Soeun Sreynith said. “They are finding it hard to start studying again, so it's also getting hard to teach them.”