‘I’m just so excited to go back to school. I’ve missed my friends and teachers, and having a quiet place to read my books.” Chea Danin, 11, is just one of millions of Cambodian schoolchildren celebrating last week’s announcement by Prime Minister Hun Sen that schools can begin to reopen this month.
UNICEF and the World Health Organisation (WHO) also welcome the announcement, which has been made possible by the incredible progress the Royal Government of Cambodia has made in rolling out Covid-19 vaccinations along with public health and social measures to suppress transmission and and minimise social distribution.
Cambodian children have had their education and lives placed on pause by the pandemic, but can now finally hit play and move into the future. However, this isn’t just a cause for children and parents to celebrate, it’s something for the whole country to unite behind. So much of Cambodia’s development over the last three decades has been driven by the government’s achievements in rebuilding and improving its education system. The pandemic has stalled this progress, but recovery and development can now move full steam ahead as classrooms reopen.
Since the news was announced, we have received dozens of messages and comments online from parents. Most are delighted about the news, but a few are understandably still concerned. The Covid-19 crisis in Cambodia is not over yet, and the emergence and spread of variants is a genuine concern, but we firmly believe that safe school reopening is possible.
Eighty per cent of Cambodia’s population over the age of 12 is now vaccinated, with an even higher percentage of teachers covered. While we know some people can still become infected even when vaccinated, they are vastly less likely to become seriously ill. This is as true for children as adults.
There is no such thing as zero risk, but those risks are now manageable. We have already seen this in Cambodia, where schools were reopened for a period in September 2020 without any known cases of infection.
More importantly, we have seen this in scores of Covid-affected countries worldwide that have started re-opening schools. The evidence has shown that schools are not major drivers of transmission within the surrounding community. This move is not a leap into the dark.
That’s why the government and partners are right to adopt a phased and blended approach to reopening of schools. Schools in areas with low infection rates can be opened first, with limited classroom sizes and a strong focus on hygiene and safety measures that have been proven to prevent most infections.
What’s more, parents and communities can play an active role in keeping risks low. This means continuing to adhere to the three dos and the three don’ts and other public health measures as advised by the Ministry of Heath, but it may also mean joining the School Management Committees that the government has placed at the heart of its reopening strategy.
These committees will ensure schools closely follow the guidelines of the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport on making school environments safe, including regular disinfection and adequate ventilation, as well as ensuring that hygiene supplies are available for teachers and children.
UNICEF and WHO have already worked hard with the government to provide technical advice and make sure essential supplies are available and will continue to provide support to keep schools safe.
With all the knowledge we now have about this virus, we know how to reopen schools without creating major risks for teachers, pupils and communities, as well as how to respond to risks when necessary.
What would be a major risk is to keep children out of schools for longer. We know prolonged school closures have a significant impact not just on children’s learning and future potential, but also on their physical and mental health.
While distance learning has helped to ensure children’s education could continue during school closures, the evidence shows that already disadvantaged children are least likely to benefit, especially those who cannot access online learning and don’t have parents able to assist them.
In fact, of the 1.6 billion children affected by school closures globally, one-third – or 463 million – were unable to access remote learning, including many in Cambodia. The evidence also shows that even when distance learning works well, it cannot equal the impact of in-person learning. As schools reopen they should strive to provide additional learning support to help students catch up on lost learning, as well as providing psychosocial support to restore and protect their wellbeing.
The biggest risk of all is that if children don’t return to schools soon, they may never return. Evidence from around the world shows that the longer children remain out of school, the less likely they are to go back. They may feel that they have fallen too far behind to ever catch up, or their families may have become too reliant on extra income children provide through working. Every day we delay, these obstacles grow.
Education is a doorway that opens onto new possibilities for children. If schools remained closed, that doorway would also have shut for many. Fortunately, this news means that we can all work together to keep the door open, ensuring that children are given all the support and encouragement they need to step back into the classroom and into a better future.
Foroogh Foyouzat is UNICEF Representative to Cambodia. Li Ailan is WHO Representative to Cambodia.