The story of how one school kept education alive during COVID

UNICEF has worked with the Ministry of Education to provide Cambodian schools with support that enables distance learning for all

Leng Theavy
29 October 2021
© UNICEF Cambodia/2021
UNICEF Cambodia/2021

Almost every aspect of Cambodian society has been challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic, but – alongside hospitals and health centres - schools have perhaps faced the greatest difficulties. They have dealt with the disruption of needing to close at least twice, and transforming everything about the way they work in order to support students to learn from a distance. Over the last year we have heard many tales of extraordinary individual efforts, including teachers who travelled long distances in order to deliver learning materials, or School Directors who came up with ingenious ways to support home studies. But today, we want to tell the story of a whole school.

Wat Cheng Primary School in Battambang achieved advanced Child-Friendly School status in 2016, confirming it as having created an environment conducive to the holistic development of all 493 children who study there. The School Management Committee (SMC), as well as the school director and all teachers, worked hard for that achievement, but were tested even more by the pandemic.

Mr. Son Sambat is the School’s Director. He says that in order to be order to prepare for safe reopening, “our school had great need for hygiene materials, including soap, alcohol, thermometers, and masks.” He also says that the school needed additional resources to make distance learning possible for children who didn’t have access to online lessons: “We needed extra materials such as paper and ink to photocopy handouts to support children’s learning at home. Around 40% of our children rely on these handouts and come to pick up the handouts twice weekly.”

Recognising the additional support that schools like Wat Cheng needed, UNICEF worked throughout the pandemic with Cambodia’s Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MoEYS) and partners such as the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) to ensure schools and teachers were given the resources they needed to keep children’s education alive. As part of this support, a block grant of $4.27 million was paid directly to schools as a top-up to their standard operating budget. These funds could be spent as needed on COVID-related expenses, such as hygiene and handwashing supplies, printing of additional learning materials ,and basic equipment to support distance learning.

© UNICEF Cambodia/2021/Leng Theavy
UNICEF Cambodia/2021/Leng Theavy

“Adding to the existing school operation budget, the GPE school block grant greatly contributed to helping us meet our needs,” says Principal Son. He also praised the additional materials and resources that had been provided by MoEYS, UNICEF and other partners. “In 2021, my school received a lot of teaching and learning resources to support continuous learning. Those included a series of videos on teaching and learning in Maths and Khmer for all grades. We also received homework exercises for all the students. The materials are great, they are very attractive to children and greatly support their learning.  Our teachers used them as the main materials to support their teaching, in addition to the standard textbooks”.

Mr. Prom Sothon is one of those teachers, educating Grade 4 students. He says that the additional support has been invaluable. “I mostly teach online, through small groups,” he explains. “I use the MoEYS education videos as my main resource. I share videos in a special Facebook Messenger group, ask students to watch, then I send them exercises. Often, I send additional explanatory videos to explain some concepts, to ensure that everyone has understood the lesson.”

However, not all students are online, which is when Mr. Prom goes the extra mile – literally. “For the hardest-to-reach children, I visit their homes and meet them in small groups, giving them handouts, explaining the materials, and asking them to submit homework. Overall, I think that sharing handouts and learning in small groups is a good way to reach all children, while minimising the risk of transmission.”

Most children at the school have proven remarkably willing to adapt to a new rhythm of life and integrate lessons into their home environment. Twelve-year-old Grade 6 student, Chorng Niwat, uses his father’s smartphone to watch video lessons and complete home learning exercises. He thanks his teachers for the extra support which makes this possible; “I receive additional exercises from my teachers through the chat. I always do the exercises and send them back to my teachers.”

Fellow Grade 6 student Keo Sambat doesn’t have the same online access so he receives paper-based handouts from the teachers, and structures his whole day around learning: “Normally, after my breakfast, I learn at home for an hour, doing the exercises in handouts and reading the textbooks. In the afternoon, I study for at least another hour. Although the school is closed, I still go there two times a week to submit my handouts. I always take the opportunity to read books in the library with a few friends.”

Sambat is very studious and, like Niwat, is glad that schools in Battambang are due to fully reopen soon. “I am happy that I can continue learning during school closures, thanks to my teachers, but I want to get back to the classroom as soon as possible. It is easier to learn, I can ask teachers immediately when I don’t understand a question. Not only that, but I can enjoy being with my friends”.

© UNICEF Cambodia/2021/Leng Theavy
UNICEF Cambodia/2021/Leng Theavy