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Covid-safe schools to resume, in piecemeal reopening plans

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Students get their temperatures checked before entering Bak Kheng Primary School in northeastern Phnom Penh, in January. Hong Menea

Covid-safe schools to resume, in piecemeal reopening plans

The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport issued new instructions on August 31 advising both state and private schools in areas where Covid-19 transmissions are relatively low to begin preparations for re-opening later this year.

This came after Prime Minister Hun Sen expressed concerns regarding Cambodia’s already lengthy period of school closures.

On August 31, Hun Sen requested that education minister Hang Chuon Naron begin planning for a partial or piecemeal reopening of schools, starting in rural areas that are relatively free of Covid-19.

In an audio message addressed to Chuon Naron, the prime minister said schools in the rural areas mostly spared from Covid-19 can reopen without having to wait for the reopening of schools across the country or in a particular district or province.

“We are in a difficult situation. If we continue to shut down all schools without distinguishing between areas that are affected by transmissions and those that are not, it could lead students to drop out or forget their lessons.

“Although we have distance learning online, students in the rural areas and those who are poor often have no ability to access the internet for school. So, I request that [Chuon Naron] discuss this with the provincial governors and select schools that can be reopened. By this I mean schools from the primary to secondary levels,” Hun Sen said.

Hun Sen reiterated that the schools will reopen once the target population has been fully vaccinated and they will have to follow the safety and preventive health measures such as masking and distancing.

“If we don’t reopen the schools where possible, we are in a situation where students and youths lose their opportunities,” he said.

According to Hun Sen, transmission cases and deaths have dropped significantly in Phnom Penh, while those who are infected only experience mild illness – all due to the widespread vaccination of the capital’s inhabitants.

He said this was a positive start towards reopening society and the economy fully across the country, including the education sector.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Prime Minister Hun Sen addresses the public on Sunday. SPM

“This is to avoid our students in the rural areas being the victims of Covid-19 when actually their areas have no Covid-19 like in towns. We have to approach this issue in a flexible manner according to the level of control over transmissions for each local situation,” he said.

Following Hun Sen’s recommendations, the education ministry issued a five-page set of instructions to state and private schools outlining the conditions under which some of them may be allowed to reopen.

The instructions state that in order to help students prepare for grades 9 and 12 exams in November and December respectively, some private and state institutions can possibly reopen depending on their local situation, available resources and the ingenuity of their administrations.

The instructions divide schools into three categories based on the prevailing Covid-19 conditions for the locations they are in – zero transmission areas, light transmission areas where students have been vaccinated and high-risk areas.

For zero transmission areas, the provincial authorities, education department and officials must select which schools can safely reopen following discussions between all stakeholders.

“Schools have to follow the standard operating procedures for school reopening in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic issued by the ministry on August 20, 2020,” he said.

For light transmission areas, schools can reopen with just 15 students maximum in each classroom and scheduling classes in shifts alternating with the other 15 students. This setup is suggested for students in grades 9 and 12. Alternatively, schools can also do a mix of online classes and in-person instruction.

For high-risk areas, online classes must remain the norm and in-person instruction will stay shut for now.

However, the instructions suggest that in high risk areas some gatherings of smaller study groups can be permitted in homes or places that the authorities have selected if all preventive health measures are followed.

The instruction also offered a number of special recommendations to protect the most vulnerable from unnecessary risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus, one of which was seen circulating on social media labelled as a “ban” on older educators from in-person teaching.

The item in question, however, is presented as a strong suggestion: “Educators over the age of 50 ought to teach online or assign [digital] worksheets.”

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