The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport said the first day of the high school diploma exams, which kicked off on December 27, went smoothly although over 4,000 registered candidates were absent and automatically failed the test.

“This year there were 114,183 eligible candidates taking exams at 204 designated testing centres ... There were 4,198 absent candidates on the morning of the first day, or 3.68 per cent of the overall total number of candidates,” it said in a Facebook post.

The ministry added that the day’s events at each of the testing centres had reportedly gone well with candidates wearing masks and maintaining personal distance from each other. The centres were supervised by exam proctors working in cooperation with the Union of Youth Federations of Cambodia, Anti-Corruption Unit and local authorities at each of the testing sites.

The ministry reported that all of the candidates seated for the exam had followed the rules and behaved appropriately with no instances of attempted cheating through means such as “cheat sheets” or use of mobile devices reported by any of the exam proctors.

However, 25 of the candidates experienced health problems during the exam, including two who tested positive for Covid-19 at the health check one day prior but were able to take the exam under special conditions due to their unusual circumstances.

Education minister Hang Chuon Naron started the day off with a ceremonial unsealing of the boxes containing the exams at the Preah Sisowath High School testing centre.

“The first concern of the ministry is Covid-19, but these days the pandemic is under control in Cambodia so the process of taking the exam will proceed normally in almost the same manner that it did prior to the outbreak of the virus.

“Before entering the exam rooms, students had their temperatures taken and there seemed to be no signs of anything to worry about. But we must remain careful. The ministry distributed masks at the centres for students as well as the academic staff. Everyone must wear masks,” Chuon Naron said.

With regard to the two candidates who tested positive for Covid-19, Chuon Naron explained that the fears of other students and test monitors had to be balanced with the impact that missing the test would have on those students.

“We must be careful, but we have to understand that they are sick even though they don’t want to be sick. We don’t want to add to their burdens when they are ill by failing them on their exams. Therefore, [Prime Minister Hun Sen] issued an order permitting them to take the exam at a suitable location,” he said.

According to ministry spokesman Ros Soveacha, the two Covid-19- positive students were both martial arts athletes who had just returned from a karate tournament in Kazakhstan.

“Following [Hun Sen’s] recommendation, we allowed these two martial arts competitors to take their exams on December 27-28 at a Covid-19 treatment centre,” he said.

According to the ministry, the pair felt well enough to take the exam because they had cases that were either very mild or asymptomatic, but they would still need to be isolated from others until they recover.

Soveacha said the 4,198 candidates counted as absent were presumably missing because of various personal issues that were not excusable according to the ministry’s rules and unfortunately they will automatically fail their exams this year and must wait until next year for another opportunity.

Heng Phearum, a candidate who took his exam at the Bak Touk High School testing centre, said that in the morning session of the exam on December 26 there were two subjects: history and biology.

“As far as the situation went with our exam room, none of the students seemed to have any problems and we were all just quietly working hard on our answers. I think I did pretty well on the history questions because it focused on the liberation of Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot, as well as the progress Cambodia has made with development in recent years,” he said.