Prime Minister Hun Sen said that although the world is united in fighting Covid-19 and has yet to achieve complete victory over the outbreak, Cambodia will forge ahead with the opening of the 2020-2021 academic year on January 11, celebrating the theme “a new life path in education”.

Coinciding with the prime minister’s statements, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport announced a back-to-school initiative dubbed “Act Now”, launched jointly with UNICEF and funding from the EU and the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) to encourage children to return to classrooms.

In a letter dated January 11, Hun Sen thanked officials across all ministries and levels of government – as well as parents and guardians of school children, generous donors, school administrators and especially teachers – who have overcome all of the obstacles of the past year while supporting the nation’s students with ongoing instruction in a variety of forms.

“January 11 represents turning a new page and beginning fresh studies by the first class of Cambodian students who faced the difficult experience of trying to pursue an education during the Covid-19 era this past school year of 2019-2020,” he said.

Hun Sen stated that since March of last year, the government had put in place effective measures in response to the situation to prevent and control the spread of Covid-19.

He also authorised the education ministry to temporarily suspend school operations when there is a risk of contracting Covid-19 and to allow reopening in stages at appropriate times.

The letter asserted that this measure would ensure the safety and health of teachers and students and minimise any interruptions to learning for most students over the coming school year.

Hun Sen said the government will prioritise funding for education and health with new revenues generated by the nation’s commencement of oil production, noting also that the opening of Cambodia’s first oil well coincided with the 22nd anniversary of the adoption of his win-win policy that finally ended the civil war in Cambodia.

“The education ministry must continue to lead in the implementation of the concept of a ‘new life path in education’, taking into account the many options available for providing educational services.

“In particular, the process of teaching and learning should be flexible and decentralised with regard to geographical location, Covid-19 risk assessment and educational status,” he said.

Education ministry spokesman Ros Soveacha said that at the opening of the school year on January 11, there would be one school in Phnom Penh still being used as a quarantine centre, but it would not affect any students because they had been transferred to other schools nearby.

“A small number of schools on the Cambodian-Thai border will also continue to be used as quarantine centres. The ministry has granted authority to the provincial departments of education to find solutions for such cases,” he said.

Soveacha added that as a practical matter, schools will be sprayed with disinfectant in accordance with Covid-19 preventive measures prescribed by the Ministry of Health, and all such measures would continue to be carried out as part of the education ministry’s standard operating procedures.

Banteay Meanchey deputy governor Ly Sary said the province was still seeing 20 to 30 migrant workers returning from Thailand each day while more than 1,000 were still in quarantine.

“Our province used seven schools in districts bordering Thailand as quarantine centres for migrant workers. We will certainly have to postpone the studies of some students because there are no other places available for quarantine,” he said.

Pech Bolen, president of the Federation of Education Services in Cambodia (FESC), said although the country would continue to suspend the opening of some schools on account of the pandemic, the overall implementation of the government’s plans for education was progressing well.

“Schools in the private sector have followed the guidelines and standards established by the health and education ministries, and public schools have reacted positively by implementing new processes for students to continue their education both in school and online,” he said.

Education minister Hang Chuon Naron said: “Now that the new school year is beginning, we want to get the message out very clearly. We want children to return to school and parents to prioritise their children’s learning, knowing that we are working hard to protect students from the virus.”

The “Act Now” campaign aims to reach families of children whose education has been most disrupted by the pandemic, encouraging them to continue with studies despite the challenges.

The campaign will make use of creative videos, posters, radio spots, and text messages that will be broadcast across the country to reinforce proven safe behaviours pertaining to Covid-19 and reassure the public that schools are safe, healthy environments for children to flourish.

EU ambassador to Cambodia said: “The Covid-19 pandemic has caused major challenges for the education sector, putting severe strain on students and their families. While online learning has been introduced, it can never fully replace classroom teaching and is not accessible to all. All children should therefore be encouraged to go back to school and feel safe when doing so.”

CEO of GPE Alice Albright said: “The pandemic has made it especially difficult for children to stay engaged in learning. While distance education has offered some continuity for learning, there is no replacement for the interaction between students and teachers.

“GPE’s support will help the government of Cambodia to safely reopen schools so that children are protected from Covid-19 as they return to in-person learning.”