For eight months, all public and private schools were closed following the so-called February 20 community outbreak of Covid-19. Many students turned to distance learning where they used various devices to connect to the internet and access online classrooms.
However, many other students could not afford mobile phones or tablets in order to attend school online. Some couldn’t even afford the internet connection to access the classes and many of those students effectively dropped out of school.
They were encouraged to find other ways to access the internet free of charge whenever possible in their areas but these weren’t always available.
During this period of school closure, the Cambodian Consortium for Out of School Children was working behind the scenes to ensure the continuation of learning and then a smooth transition back to in-person classes for Cambodian students.
“There is still a sizable population of children who cannot access school though Cambodia has dedicated considerable resources to improve access to quality education,” according to Christine Redmond, the communications & partnership manager of the NGO Aide et Action.
Aide et Action is an international NGO working in 19 countries to support development of sustainable education projects with an office in Southeast Asia that opened in 2003, they have implemented projects across Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
The NGO has promoted access to high-quality education for the most vulnerable and marginalised populations in the countries where they operate to offer life-long learning journeys starting in early childhood and continuing through secondary school and vocational education.
The Cambodian Consortium for Out of School Children is a four-year cooperative project between NGOs and the government that began in November 2020 to support out of school children across Cambodia jointly sponsored by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport and funded by the Qatar Fund for Development.
The project comprises approximately 30 local and international nonprofit organisations led by Aide et Action in partnership with Educate a Child – a global programme sponsored by the Education Above All Foundation.
Children living in poverty, children of ethnic minorities, children in geographically remote areas, children with disabilities, children who are over-age for their grade level and young girls facing gender-based challenges have received support from the project.
Redmond said that they can’t access online education due to poverty which leads to a lack of access to devices, lack of access to a stable internet connection, absence of caregivers able to teach or support learning at home and many other difficulties.
“Alternative and flexible learning strategies such as radio broadcasts and printed homework sheets from teachers are very important for rural students – particularly young students from ethnic minority households who don’t speak Khmer at home.
“If distance-learning is only available via the internet or tech devices, then not all children will be able to access it,” she told The Post.
The net enrollment of children aged 6-11 in primary schools stood at 86.7 per cent, indicating that over 13 per cent of primary school-aged children were not enrolled in school, said Aide et Action, citing the education ministry’s “Public Education Statistics & Indicators” for the 2020/21 school year.
The Consortium has now distributed over 4,000 radios to ethnic minority students in Ratanakkiri, Mondulkiri and Kratie provinces where lesson content was then broadcast in minority languages on local radio, according to Redmond.
“To better equip teachers, parents and children to adapt to distance learning methods the Consortium also developed a repository of online resources accessible and free to all. To date, 43 pieces of teacher training content and 2,344 book titles including 572 audiobooks have been developed,” said Redmond.
There was a nationwide effort from the schools and teachers, the governments and NGOs to keep children engaged in learning during the school closures.
She said even during the school closures, the Consortium managed to enroll a number of at-risk students into non-formal education.
“But we don’t know yet if all children will return to school,” she says. “We do know some children have had to take on more responsibilities at home like part-time or even full-time jobs or have had to migrate to other parts of the country in search of work with their families.”
Redmond says there is a risk that some of those children – particularly those who have lost contact with their teachers or those who are over-age – might not return to education.
Following the reopening of all sectors starting November 1 – including the reopening of schools at all levels across the country – announced by Prime Minister Hun Sen students wearing face masks have returned to Cambodia’s schools.
“We are thrilled by this positive development in the lives of school children across Cambodia. It certainly has been a long time coming and a journey not without its share of struggle, stress and strain.
“Throughout this ordeal with Covid-19, we, along with our partners, Aide et Action, and the Consortium have been keeping our eyes focused on this moment that we knew would come.
“Now that it has arrived, we are still working to ensure as smooth a transition as possible back into education for children through classroom refurbishment, teacher training and the provision of learning materials,” said Dr Mary Joy Pigozzi, executive director of Educate a Child.
Over 60 per cent of the country’s primary schools have no access to running water and over 25 per cent don’t have any access to latrines.
To assist with these issues, the Consortium refurbished classrooms in dozens of schools across the country and invested in new teaching and learning materials, hand-washing stations and water filters for the early stages of school re-opening.
“To recover the learning losses during the school closures, the Consortium will support catch-up classes to struggling students to help prevent drop outs, and carry out life-skills courses to strengthen social and emotional connections.
“The Consortium will also support the setup of a database tracking system to identify students at risk of dropping out of primary school,” according to Redmond.
Apart from that, Aide et Action has kick-started various initiatives for children who have dropped out of school to continue their educations.
They are offering in-kind schooling support to marginalised girls and boys, supporting the development of an accelerated learning program or equivalency program for over-age learners and supporting the integration of children with disabilities into public schools.
The organisation also launched the “Khmer Rean Arn” (Khmer Learning) and Khmer Library applications – free mobile applications with reading and learning content for Cambodian children.
“In Cambodia, Aide et Action opened its office to focus on strengthening and enlarging the quality of education, learning and teaching in impoverished communities across the country.
“In some schools, we equip them with tablets and computers to attract children to come and engage in reading,” the organisation’s country programme director Vorn Samphors told The Post.
He said that reading is extremely important and that’s why reading spaces are set up at the centre of schools, libraries and in communities while also making resources available on tablets and phones.
Redmond said that currently the mobile libraries are being used to broadcast messages about Covid-19 prevention.
“We don’t have a date yet on when the mobile library activities will resume but we hope to resume them as soon we can, dependent on the safe reopening of schools,” she says.
“Meanwhile, we have actively increased the number of books and audiobooks on our free learning apps and currently have a thousand book titles with hundreds of audiobooks that include content in minority languages and we have supported schools and marginalised students by providing access to devices.”
The Consortium plans to leverage multi-government support and cross-sector partnerships to enroll over 116,000 out of school children across the capital and all 24 provinces into formal education by 2024.
For more information on Aide et Action’s projects in Cambodia check out their website: https://seac.aide-et-action.org