Minister of Education Hang Chuon Naron said schools will reopen only when the Kingdom and countries in the region have gotten the Covid-19 pandemic under control.

Speaking in a video interview published by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MoEYS) on Saturday, Chuon Naron said to avoid a second wave of infections, it will wait until the government declares that the country is 90-95 per cent safe, if not 100 per cent.

Asked why the ministry delayed school reopening when only two out of a total of 122 Covid-19 patients remain hospitalised, he said safety is the top priority.

“We cannot reopen schools and risk contracting the Covid-19 coronavirus. Because our borders are still open, and the flow of people continues.

“So if the situation in neighbouring countries is not good, we cannot guarantee 100 per cent safety. Singapore and Malaysia, for instance, are still confronting the disease. We cannot declare Cambodia safe until we can ensure that our neighbours and countries in the region can control the spread of the disease.

“Before reopening schools, we need to ensure that there is no Covid-19 outbreak in the community and that there is no infection imported from other countries,” he said.

Chuon Naron said he is also following guidance from the Ministry of Health, which has warned of a second wave of infections. From experience with such a pandemic, he said a second wave of infections can cause more deaths than during the first outbreak.

To address challenges facing the education sector amid the pandemic, he said the ministry has introduced Distance Learning and E-Learning Programmes through various platforms, including social media and television.

“We think about students’ education and have provided them with Distance Learning and E-Learning. We have turned this crisis into an opportunity to strengthen education through the use of digital technology.

“Such an education in normal situations would be difficult. But under the current circumstances, we are doing well. That is a kind of education that requires all students to work hard,” he said.

This, despite the fact that some two million rural students are unable to access its E-Learning and Distance Learning programmes as they either do not have smartphones or televisions.

Education ministry spokesperson Ros Soveacha on Sunday did not disclose the number of rural students who might be able to access the Distance and E-Learning programmes, saying only that parents and guardians supported them, especially distant learning on national television TVK2.

“The TVK2 can reach urban and rural areas across the country. Families who do not have a TV can learn at their neighbours’ homes with no more than 10 people, by maintaining a safe gap and following medical guidelines as directed by the Ministry of Health,” he had said.

Telecommunication Regulator of Cambodia spokesman Im Vutha told The Post late last month that only about 53 per cent of the country’s geographical area is covered by high-speed internet, which clearly affects a large chunk of E-Learning students from rural areas.

To many in rural areas, television access is still considered a luxury.

On April 19, the ministry signed a memorandum of understanding with the Ministry of Information to make classes available to students who do not have smartphones to access Distance Learning programmes via television, which it launched with newly established channel TVK2.

Students living in rural areas were told to access the channel via Decho TV (DTV) which is owned by Cambodian DTV Network Ltd, a subsidiary of the Thai Shin satellite company.

Citing a 2008 census, Information and broadcasting director-general Phos Sovann said 2.4 million households have televisions in the Kingdom.

He said television channels are accessible via free to air, cable, or satellite dishes. However, the first two options are not available to rural areas and only satellite television is widely subscribed there.

But Sovann said televisions in rural areas “will not receive the educational programmes if the households have not installed the satellite dishes”.

He said there are seven licensed satellite television providers in Cambodia but only three are fully operational – DTV, Skyone, and OneTV.

Even though satellite television services are widely available in rural areas, each dish costs $85, plus an additional instalment fee. But unlike cable television services, users of satellite television do not have to pay any monthly fee.

Still, many cannot afford to subscribe to such services or even purchase a television.

Child Rights Coalition Cambodia (CRC - Cambodia) – an international and national coalition made up of 58 members – issued a joint statement on Friday, commending the government for keeping infection cases to a minimum and expressing full support for the education ministry’s measures amid the pandemic.

“We express our full support for these measures. At the same time, we have consulted with 539 children and 372 parents and guardians, expressing concerns over the vulnerable children at this stage of the epidemic,” it said.