Amid Virus Concerns, Students and Teachers Return to Phnom Penh Schools

Students return to school at Phnom Penh’s Preah Sisowath High School on September 15, 2021. (Hy Chhay/VOD)
Students return to school at Phnom Penh’s Preah Sisowath High School on September 15, 2021. (Hy Chhay/VOD)

Students line up outside Preah Sisowath High School in Phnom Penh’s Daun Penh district, handing vaccination cards to a Cambodian Scout who checks it before letting them pass. They then undergo a temperature check and wash their hands with disinfectant before entering the school.

News journalists are busy covering the school’s reopening through live broadcasts, and have to be asked by teachers to move their cameras because they are obstructing the front gate of the school.

Some students and teachers are turned away for not having their vaccination cards.

“If they do not have a vaccination card, we asked them to note down their names and we advised them to bring the card the next day,” said school vice principal Sao Sokha as his school reopened on Wednesday.

While students were meeting friends and reconnecting, most expressed two major concerns about returning to school: their parents’ reluctance to let them return, and whether they had learned enough in the last year to meet the challenges of a new grade.

Yorn Mesaphanit is a grade 12 student at Preah Sisowath High School. The 18-year-old was happy to be back in school and meet his classmates, but back home, his father was skeptical.

“He said, isn’t [studying] at home better? The Covid-19 situation in society is escalating with another [variant],” Mesaphanit said, repeating what his father told him.

The student was more worried about the critical grade 12 examinations he will take next year. He said online learning, which was used for most of the last 20 months, had given him only limited understanding of the lessons.

“There is a lack of [ability] because with online learning sometimes we do not understand, so we have to catch up with the learning a lot.”

Schools have been largely closed since March 2020, except for brief periods in September and October last year, and earlier this year before the February 20 outbreak was identified. 

Phnom Penh City Hall announced on Tuesday that 227 secondary and high schools were to reopen in Phnom Penh, of which 68 were public schools and 159 private schools. Close to 140,000 students were expected to return to school alongside around 10,400 teachers and school staffers.

As people streamed into Preah Sisowath school, there was confusion as to where staff could park their motorcycles. Teachers were seen trying to convince the Cambodian Scouts to let them enter a school gate near Norodom Boulevard but were asked to use another entrance on the other side of the premises.

Normally, there are no lessons on the first day of school and students are allowed to mingle with friends and only get a few instructions from their teachers. On Wednesday, there were no students in the central courtyard, partly on account of the rain, but also because teachers were explaining the new schedules for each classroom.

Sokha, the school’s vice principal, said students were informed they would be split into two batches of 15 students each, and that desks had been placed apart from each other to ensure Education Ministry guidelines were followed. When one group was in school, the other was expected to practice their lessons and do exercises at home.

He added that more students came to school on Wednesday than were expected, some unaware that classroom schedules had been split into two. 

A student enters the campus of Phnom Penh’s Preah Sisowath High School on September 15, 2021. (Hy Chhay/VOD)
A student enters the campus of Phnom Penh’s Preah Sisowath High School on September 15, 2021. (Hy Chhay/VOD)

Just outside the school, Phon Zeii runs a small motorcycle parking lot. The parking attendant said he was pleased to see students back in school. Having worked at the parking lot for 10 years he has come to see the school as a second home, Zeii said.

He and his staff would wear masks and practice basic hygiene requirements, and also keep an eye out for students who forgot to wear their masks.

“The important thing is that we actually work and we always want to earn money, don’t we? [We] want the [school] to run as smoothly as before and for students to come and study as smoothly as before.”

But parents are still apprehensive about sending their children to school, especially with the emergence of the Delta variant.

Mey Chantha’s daughter, Tay Monika, started grade 9 at Preah Sisowath High School. The clothes seller said her daughter would learn more if she interacted with a teacher in person. However, the continued presence of the Covid-19 virus was worrying.

“One part of my mind wants her to learn directly at school, the other one doesn’t want her to learn there because it is terrifying,” Chantha said. “I want her to learn directly, but there are also concerns about her safety, even though she has been vaccinated.”

More than 85 percent of children aged 12-17 have been vaccinated, according to the government, leading to the decision to reopen secondary schools. Hun Sen on Wednesday ordered a vaccination campaign for children between the ages of 6 and 11 in an effort to reopen primary schools.

Kim Sotheary, a grade 9 and 12 biology teacher, said she was happy to be back at school after months of teaching online. And while she was concerned about the virus, she said students needed in-person learning.

“There is a feeling of being afraid too, but students haven’t studied directly for a long time,” she said. “And because of the ministry’s policy, most educators have already been vaccinated, so the risk is low.”

Phnom Penh City Hall statistics show that upward of 99 percent of adults in the city have been vaccinated for Covid-19, with the central government starting booster doses in some parts of the country.

Monika, Chantha’s daughter, had similar concerns to her mother but felt it was still worth the risk of going back to school.

“My father told me to keep a distance from others. In the beginning, he did not want me to come to school because he was worried about getting infected, however, I wanted to come to school because it is boring at home and I cannot learn well.”

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