How teachers laid the groundwork for a happy new school year
As we celebrate the beginning of a new school year in Cambodia, we tell the stories of those who worked hard to make it possible.
- Available in:
“I feel very hopeful about the future now that schools are open again” says Chhem Thorn Sitha, a primary school teacher in Kampong Chhnang province. “Direct, face to face interaction is much better than trying to teach from a distance. We can really see how the kids are doing when they are in class, find out what their extra needs are. So being able to reopen makes me very happy.”
Sitha is certainly not the only teacher feeling much happier since COVID restrictions were eased and schools started to reopen in November of last year, culminating on January 10th with the beginning of the first full, in-person school year since the pandemic began. In fact, the new school year became a source of national celebration and Cambodia’s Prime Minister wrote a letter of congratulations to all teachers across the country.
“I feel very confident that the school will stay open this time,” says Sok Weng, Sitha’s manager, and the director of Bunrany Hun Sen Romeas Primary School. “Unlike earlier in the pandemic, I think that the vaccinations and the better health information we have now will allow us to keep our gates open. It’s a great moment for the teachers and the whole community, everyone was happy to see children finally come back and learn. It’s a big joy to us.”
Schools certainly worked hard to make the reopenings possible. The most obvious challenge was making sure that schools became safe and hygienic spaces, and that children and their families all understood the best way of keeping each other safe from infection.
“Keeping good hygiene is going to be crucial to staying open,” argues Sitha. “That is why educating people about hygiene has been very important. I think parents are properly prepared now, they have the information and important supplies such as masks. We’ve also got more handwashing stations here in the school. Most importantly, I see that children’s behavior has changed. Now if they use chalk and get it on their hands they ask to be excused to wash, which they never did before!”
Koh Vanet, director at the nearby Prasat Neang Torng Primary School, agrees that improving hygiene was an essential step towards reopening, and was grateful to the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MoEYS) and UNICEF for supporting both schools and families with hygiene supplies and training. “All of my teachers work hard to tell the children and families about how to stay clean and safe, but this message needs to be reinforced frequently. That’s going to be essential if we are going to stay open.”
However, Vanet says that it has been even more important to ensure that students continued to study when schools were closed and that the support of the Ministry and UNICEF was again invaluable. “I organised the teachers into a network throughout our communities, and we followed Ministry advice and formed small learning groups for some children. Then even that became impossible when infection rates were high and we had to stop all travelling, so at that point we drew on guidance to create video lessons. We had to be creative and we had to be determined. I didn’t want any children to drop out, especially the ones whose parents had left the community because they couldn’t find work. I’m very happy that all children did come back in the end.”
Sam Chanta has experienced the challenges the pandemic caused to education from two perspectives, as both a teacher and a mother. She believes that the Government achieved a lot throughout the pandemic: “it’s been a very difficult situation, and they’ve had to support so many teachers, some of whom didn’t even know how to use a computer before.”
On the other hand, she has also felt sad for her youngest son, Lyhour, who is six and until recently had received very little classroom education because of the pandemic. “I encouraged him to read a lot, and it was lucky that he really enjoyed it, but he couldn’t wait for schools to open again so he could learn more.”
It's for children like Lyhour that UNICEF is working closely with MoEYS to assess the learning capabilities of returning students to establish the extent of learning loss and take action to remedy it. While waiting for these results the Ministry has already directed all schools in Cambodia to prioritise remedial studies in the first two months of the school year.
“We’re very happy that young Cambodians are in classrooms again,” says Hiroyuki Hattori, UNICEF’s Education Chief in Cambodia. “We have worked hard alongside MoEYS to provide the best possible distance learning opportunities, but there is no substitute for face to face learning. We will continue working closely with the Ministry to monitor student progress and where we identify gaps in learning we will work to fill them with additional remedial learning materials and training for teachers. We’ll also be researching whether more students than usual dropped out during school closures. If they did, we’ll work with the Ministry to try and bring them back to learning, because all children have the right to education.”
Sor Chantha, also a teacher in Kampong Chhnang, agrees on the importance of education, and is determined to work hard to help his young students progress. “I think it was very helpful that all the grade 1 and 2 students all received special books* last year to help them catch up with their studies,” he says. “Now I just want to see schools stay open, and for us to put this pandemic behind us so our lives can improve.”
“I’m glad to be back at school,” says one of those grade 2 students, Villa Sambath. “I really missed it a lot. My goal is to keep studying and finish high school, I think my parents will help me do that. Two things make me really happy right now. The first is to see my teacher again. The second is to learn again.”
* The Home Learning Packages were distributed to all grade 1 and 2 students in Cambodian public schools, created by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MoEYS) and supported by its Capacity Development Partnership Fund (CDPF) partners, the European Union (EU), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Swedish Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), and the Global Partnership for Education (GPE)