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Cambodia Reopens Schools with Fewer Student Enrolments

A group of students walks to school on the first day of a new academic year, in Phnom Penh Cambodia, January 11, 2021. (Tum Malis/VOA Khmer)
A group of students walks to school on the first day of a new academic year, in Phnom Penh Cambodia, January 11, 2021. (Tum Malis/VOA Khmer)

Public schools opened nationwide for the new academic year, after the COVID-19 pandemic severely affected the 2020 school year, with preliminary data showing a slight drop in the number of students enrolled this year.

After schools were suspended in mid-March last year, there were few school days because of COVID-19 outbreaks from October to December. Grade 12 and 9 students were allowed to pass their examinations without sitting for them, with experts raising concerns over students’ grasp of their lessons last year.

Speaking at a ceremonial school opening in Kampong Cham province, Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron said the reopening of schools was occurring in the backdrop of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our main priorities during the COVID-19 pandemic are to protect the safety of children and students, and to use all possible means to ensure education services are provided to students,” the minister said on Monday.

Preliminary student enrolment numbers from the ministry for kindergarten to high school were around 3,466,000 students which was a 17,854 drop from 2019 when 3,483,858 children joined the school year.

Ministry of Education Spokesperson Ros Soveacha did not provide a specific explanation for the fall in enrolments or if it was related to students joining the workforce.

“Whether to continue school or to drop out from school is an individual’s decision, but the ministry remains committed to serve the students by enabling both self-learning and on-campus education during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Ros Soveacha said.

Experts and teachers have expressed concern over the quality of education imparted to students last year. The ministry produced and streamed lessons on YouTube, Facebook, and state television, but teachers noticed that students from less affluent families and in more rural areas did not have smartphones or internet access to take advantage of distancing learning measures.

The ministry issued new guidelines for no more than 25 students per classroom in kindergarten, 35 in primary school, and 45 in secondary and high school. Schools will continue to enforce other sanitary requirements imposed last year.

Ouk Chhayavy, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association, said implementing the precautionary measures like mandatory mask-wearing, social distancing, and maintaining clean premises will be challenging.

“I just hope they do not mobilize too many students at a time in both public and private schools,” Ouk Chhayavy said. “During the schools opening this morning, you could see the students gathered together and there was not so much social distancing.”