Stories from the COVID-19 generation in Cambodia

Over three million children have been affected by school closures in Cambodia, and the scale of this crisis threatens to roll back years of progress and leave the most vulnerable deprived of essential services

Chansereypich Seng & Lydia Darby
Children at Wat Chak Primary School, Siem Reap Province.
UNICEF Cambodia/2020/Chansereypich Seng
17 August 2020

A global pandemic has closed schools, exacerbated child poverty and risks to halt development opportunities for children across Cambodia. More than three million children have been affected by school closures in the country, and the scale of this crisis threatens to roll back years of progress and leave the most vulnerable deprived of essential services in protection, education, health, nutrition and water. The impact could span generations. Giving children alternative ways to learn and rebuilding a routine has been a critical part of UNICEF’s response.

Sun Sakada, a grade three student at Wat Chak Primary School, Siem Reap Province.
UNICEF Cambodia/2020/Chansereypich Seng
Sun Sakada, a grade three student at Wat Chak Primary School, Siem Reap Province.

This is Sun Sakada, an eight-year-old boy in grade three at Wat Chak Primary School. “It’s difficult learning online. Teachers are sending lessons and homework in the Facebook Messenger group. I can receive them on my mum’s phone but when her phone credit runs out, I have no way of knowing what the homework is and keep missing out on lessons. And then, when she buys phone credits, there’s soooo much homework!"

Sakada, like many other Cambodian children living in rural places, is disadvantaged by a lack of digital connectivity but is still doing his best. This digital divide poses a serious challenge to distance learning solutions during the crisis, and risks widening the inequality gap. While 12.5 million of a population of 16.36 million are internet users (Hootsuite, 2019), those without are primarily in rural parts of the country. UNICEF is supporting Cambodia’s Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MoEYS) to provide alternative learning opportunities to students, including online ‘e-learning’ classes broadcast through various social media platforms, TV and radio, aiming to reach every household in Cambodia.

Sakada comes to school every Wednesday to receive math and Khmer lessons, and submit his homework. At his Primary School, Wat Chak, and many others around Siem Reap Province, strict COVID-19 protection measures have been put in place so that small groups of children can come to school once a week to receive hard copies of different lessons and submit their homework.  This also gives them an opportunity to talk to the teacher and ask questions about topics that they don’t fully understand.  Some children come to school because they miss their friends, classrooms, and playgrounds. 

Rong Vannak is a 15-year-old in grade nine at Rolours Lower Secondary School, Siem Reap Province.
UNICEF Cambodia/2020/Chansereypich Seng
Rong Vannak is a 15-year-old in grade nine at Rolours Lower Secondary School, Siem Reap Province.

Rong Vannak is a 15-year-old in grade nine at Rolours Lower Secondary School. “Both of my parents lost their jobs because of COVID-19, they were working in the service and tourism industry. Now they are helping at my aunt’s food shop and planting fruit. They don’t have a regular salary; we don’t know what the next week looks like. But our family is alright”, says Vannak.    

Vannak’s parents are two of the 390,000 people in Cambodia who have lost their jobs due to the economic fallout of COVID-19 (ADB). The impact of the crisis is immediate, as many families are not able to pay for their basic needs, such as food, water, medicine and access to health care and education. In crises like this, children suffer the most, not only are their immediate needs unmet but the risk of neglect, child labor, violence, abuse and child marriage is heightened and can have a long-lasting impact on their lives. 

But Vannak is undeterred by the circumstances and his eyes are on the future. “I have always loved learning English. My mom introduced me to English when I was in second grade and I’ve been going to English classes by myself since grade three. My parents give me the time and the opportunity to study. I want to become either a tour guide or an English teacher. Being a guide will allow me to practice my English and I would love to chat with native speakers when I go abroad.” 

“I also love technology. So, when the Vice School Director introduced us to the E-School Cambodia App, I volunteered to help install it. I made video tutorials and wrote down other instructions for my friends and schoolmates. It was really fulfilling, by sharing my knowledge with my friends, I too was able to learn something new in return.”  

Parents Mut Krem, a 38-year-old Charcoal businessman and Po Siemlay, a 35-year-old housewife with their six-year-old daughter, Krem Omrithida.
unICEF Cambodia/2020/Chansereypich Seng
Parents Mut Krem, a 38-year-old Charcoal businessman and Po Siemlay, a 35-year-old housewife with their six-year-old daughter, Krem Omrithida.

Learning from home during this time hasn’t only been a challenge for children. Many parents and caregivers have taken up the roles of teachers. For parents Mut Krem, a 38-year-old Charcoal businessman and Po Siemlay, a 35-year-old housewife, they have worked hard to help their children learn at home. Technology alone cannot replace teachers or caregivers’ presence and guidance.  This is especially true for younger children.  Their youngest, Krem Omrithida, is six years old and in grade one.

“My youngest child had just started school but after three months, COVID-19 hit and her school shut down temporarily.  Now, my wife and I are supporting her distance learning during outreach classes and at home. All outreach teachings are voluntary, but we really appreciate this because students can still learn better, despite less hours of study,” explains Krem.

He continued, “when the school reopens, I will send all my children back. I don’t have anything else to give them besides education. Even now that my business is badly hit by COVID-19 and I must get loans to survive, I still invest in my kids’ education. I am trying to solve my family’s economic crisis bit by bit.” 

Seng Nearadey, 13, of Rolours Lower Secondary School, Siem Reap Province.
unICEF Cambodia/2020/Chansereypich Seng
Seng Nearadey, 13, of Rolours Lower Secondary School, Siem Reap Province.

Seng Nearadey, aged 13 and in grade seven of Rolours Lower Secondary School, explained, “when the school was initially closed, there was only a Facebook Messenger group for us to receive lessons and send back homework. But then, our teachers realised that this was not enough, especially for students who do not have any smart devices.” To combat this digital divide, a growing area of concern for UNICEF and partners, the school has created lesson printouts which students can now pick up from the campus. Nearadey helps to distribute them with some other students from Monday to Friday, 1 PM to 5 PM. The teachers’ contact numbers are included on the papers so students can call and ask about things they don’t understand.  

“I wish more students who do not have smartphones or internet at home could come to school to pick up lessons and homework in hard copies. If they don’t understand the lessons, they can ask me or teachers so they still can catch up with their study.”  

Thun Say, eight years old and in grade three at Rolours Primary School, Siem Reap Province.
UnICEF Cambodia/2020/Chansereypich Seng
Thun Say, eight years old and in grade three at Rolours Primary School, Siem Reap Province.

Thun Say, an eight-year-old girl in grade three at Rolours Primary School explained, “at 10 AM, I go to my grandma’s house for one-hour TV Maths and Khmer lessons”. Despite not being able to access lessons at home, her learning is progressing well thanks to the TV and Radio learning programmes, getting lessons’ printouts at school and relying on her mother and sister for support.

So Pisey, aged 13, is in grade eight at Rolours Lower Secondary School and is the acting Vice President of the Student Council.
UnICEF Cambodia/2020/Chansereypich Seng
So Pisey, aged 13, is in grade eight at Rolours Lower Secondary School and is the acting Vice President of the Student Council.

Learning during this time is not the only thing that’s important for young people’s development, but rest, exercise and play too. So Pisey, aged 13, is in grade eight at Rolours Lower Secondary School and is the acting Vice President of the Student Council. While her school is closed, Pisey is keeping herself healthy by playing football with her siblings, cycling, and working out from YouTube videos. “I also like planting trees and I like our school garden”, Pisey says. 

Khon Sopheak, a 14-year-old girl in grade nine at Rolours Lower Secondary School, Siem Reap Province.
UnICEF Cambodia/2020/Chansereypich Seng
Khon Sopheak, a 14-year-old girl in grade nine at Rolours Lower Secondary School, Siem Reap Province.

“Because of the pandemic, COVID-19 is now the life-skill subject for us this semester. My friends and I have done a lot of research on Google, YouTube and social media channels to help us complete the assignment,” explains Khon Sopheak, a 14-year-old girl in grade nine at Rolours Lower Secondary School.

“When I am constantly on the phone, learning online, my parents misunderstand me and think I am playing games. Phone bills are also costly, and the [internet] connection is often slow.” But Sopheak, hasn’t let the school closures stop her from thriving. “Our teachers keep encouraging us to call or message them whenever we have questions. They also remind us to do our homework and guide us to the Ministry of Education Youth and Sport website and social media platforms, useful apps and more.” 

UNICEF works to ensure that no child is left behind - that every child, despite their ability, gender, socio-economic, or ethnic background has access to learning opportunities.