In a cluttered garage, 15-year-old Tarun sits on a cracked plastic chair, exposed to the noise and traffic of Phnom Penh’s northern Phsar Depo III Commune. An endlessly grinding fan belt behind him sands the edges off his words. His uncle reaches up and kills the engine.
Tarun was in grade 6 when his school closed down due to COVID-19 last year. Online learning wasn’t an option for him, he says. Instead, he was put to work on his family’s farm in Kampong Cham Province, planting bitter melon in the fields alongside his parents.
“The school closed, and then opened, and then closed again, so I just decided to stop,” he says. “Not many students continued studying.”
In October, about a month after schools in the capital and some provinces began opening their doors for the first time in seven months, Tarun moved to Phnom Penh to work in the garage, which is owned by a friend of his uncle. He works from 6:30 a.m. until 6 p.m., helping the mechanics take off car tires and pumping them full of air. He lives with his uncle, and he’s not getting paid yet, he says—that comes later. He misses his former classmates, but they don’t talk anymore.
“At first when I came here to work I was nervous, but after two weeks, I felt OK,” he says.
After enduring about 300 days of remote learning as schools opened and shut over the two years since the start of the pandemic, students in Cambodia have cautiously made their way back to in-person classes. But for school-age children who grew up in the countryside, COVID-19 has widened an already deep economic divide that pushes children from poor families out of the classroom and into manual labour.
As the global economic shockwaves of the pandemic hit working families, teenage students have been pressured to take up jobs working on their families’ farms, or, if they get the chance, have relocated to find work. Some, like Tarun, have been sent by their families to learn a trade in Phnom Penh, building up skills that will help them earn income without first spending years in a classroom catching up on the schooling they’ve missed. For some students, it means the end of their education and the early start of an adult life labouring in the same professions as their parents.
Students in rural areas were more likely to drop out of school than their urban counterparts even before COVID-19. In the 2019–2020 school year, the first during the pandemic, 9.6% of rural students in grades 10 to 12 dropped out, compared to 5.4% in cities.
Rural students in grades 7 to 9 quit school at an even higher rate—19.2%—compared to 14% in cities, according to data from the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport.
In August and September 2020, before the 2020–2021 school year began in January due to pandemic-related closures, Cambodia’s education ministry, Unicef and Save the Children surveyed more than 15,000 people, nearly half of whom were students or their caregivers. The resulting education needs assessment, released in March, found that 16% of responding students had either already dropped out of school or were at risk of dropping out. One in 10 children were already working full-time or part-time.
In addition, more than three quarters of the students who reported having already dropped out or being at high risk of dropping out had either started working or had taken up a greater share of household chores to take some of the pressure off their families.
The school closed, and then opened, and then closed again, so I just decided to stop.
Students Left Behind
Sitting in front of a garage a block away from Tarun, 15-year-old Neth was only in grade 3 by the time schools first closed due to the pandemic. Living in Pursat Province, in Cambodia’s far west, Neth never had the chance to study online. Instead, his parents sent him to the capital to earn his keep at an auto repair shop run by an old acquaintance of his mother.
“I don’t want to go back to school because I am too old,” he says. “I feel embarrassed to go back and be in grade 3.”
The pandemic has been an erratic and exhausting time for parents and children alike. Cambodia’s schools first closed in response to the global outbreak in March 2020, and gradually opened again in August last year before closing their doors again in November 2020 in response to a new community cluster. They opened back up in January 2021, only to be abruptly closed again following the “February 20” outbreak, which ushered in the first of what would soon be some 2,900 recognised deaths from the virus. While Phnom Penh and some provinces began reopening schools in September, most remained shut until November.
Throughout this period, the government has tried to maintain students’ access to education through publicly available remote learning materials, including lecture videos accessible online and broadcast on TV. But as parents and teachers across the world have discovered, a screen is no replacement for learning face to face in a classroom.
Chea Vuthy teaches earth science to grades 7, 8 and 9 in rural Kampong Speu Province. When schools closed over the past year, he set up an online group of students in an effort to keep his pupils learning throughout the pandemic. Before long, though, he found himself giving remote lessons to a bare handful.
“Some students just join, and then they leave,” he says. “It can’t compare to physical classes. Before, there were many students. Now, sometimes there are only four or five students in the online class.”
Poor access to electricity, internet and digital devices for some students has made the past two years of remote learning a frustrating and often futile effort. According to the March education needs assessment, 69% of responding students or their caregivers said they had access to a smartphone, but only 12% had a computer or tablet at home. Nearly half lacked access to electricity. Only about one in four said they had internet access.
Home learning has meant few hours spent studying at all. More than 80% of surveyed students spent five hours or fewer per week studying remotely, with 45% engaging in distance learning for just an hour or less per week. In total, an estimated 3.2 million students were affected by school closures in Cambodia during the pandemic.
Unsurprisingly, these months away from school have fallen hardest on poor families. While the March survey found that around 70% of students across the country had accessed at least one of the education ministry’s publicly available distance learning programmes, such as worksheets or online videos, since schools shut, that number dropped to 57% for households registered with the IDPoor scheme, the government’s main social welfare benefit.
Overall, students from poor families were less likely than others to have access to electricity, internet, smartphones, computers, TV and well-lit space to do schoolwork at home, the study says.
Lost School Years
Down a dirt road away from the Oral District town centre in Kampong Speu Province, Kim Phean is watching over her six grandchildren while they play. Although their school reopened in October, none of them are in uniform. Their teacher’s motorbike broke down, she says, and the morning’s classes were cancelled. For the 63-year-old, this has become an all-too-familiar sight since the pandemic started.
“There were no online classes,” she says. “They didn’t get to study because there’s no [internet] service here. The teachers ask them to go to study once a week. I try to tell them to study.”
On weekdays, their parents work in textile factories that ring the countryside around Kampong Speu’s provincial capital of Chbar Mon. On weekends, they tend the one-hectare family farm, growing corn, pumpkins and rice to help bring in more income.
According to a study on dropout rates released by Save the Children in February as the country’s first major community outbreak was taking root, more than 15% of students in Oral District were considered at high risk of dropping out.
Although she is passionate about her grandchildren’s studies, Phean has a hard time helping them with their schoolwork. The grandmother was just 17 when Pol Pot’s forces seized Phnom Penh after almost five years of civil war, when the earth heaved beneath the weight of half a million tonnes of US ordnance. Those five years cut a scar through what would have been her school years, robbing her of the chance to pass some learning of her own down to her descendents.
“I let the kids’ parents teach them and help them with their studies when they come back from work,” she says. “All I do is try to tell them to study and take care of them. It’s very hard to tell them to study. Sometimes they don’t listen to me.”
The three generations of Phean’s family, living under the same tin roof, tell a well-worn story: the grandmother worked a patch of land granted to her family during land reforms launched by the Vietnamese-backed People’s Republic of Kampuchea in the last days of the Cold War; her children were able to offset their meagre income by finding wage work in the nation’s nascent manufacturing sector; and now, her grandchildren are growing up in a country where the percentage of children enrolled in primary school had risen to about 90% by 2020.
“We send the children to school hoping they will study well and have a good job and earn a lot of money,” Phean says.
Dany, a 28-year-old mother who declined to share her family name, moved to Oral District 10 years ago, after her wedding. Today, she runs a roadside stall in town, where tins of sweetened milk and cans of energy drinks are stacked beside a battered cooler. A group of schoolgirls cluster around a folding metal table behind her, their hands clasped to sweating cups of iced coffee.
“It was not very easy for my son when the school first closed,” Dany says. “My son was 6 years old. He just started going to school for half a year, and then the school closed. Now my son is 8 years old, and he has not finished grade 1 yet.”
I don’t want to go back to school because I am too old. I feel embarrassed to go back and be in grade 3.
This gap in many students’ formative years could have bitter consequences. Even before the pandemic, Cambodia’s promising public school enrollment figures masked a more troubling reality. According to 2018 figures published by Unicef, nearly a quarter of children in grade 3 are unable to write a single word in a dictation test. Less than a third of students between 3 and 5 years old are considered on-track in terms of reading and numeracy. By the time they’re 17, more than half of adolescents will have dropped out of school altogether.
Vuthy, the teacher from Kampong Speu, says he is worried that the pandemic is leaving some students behind.
“I think the school closure for months and years has a huge effect on the education of many Cambodian children,” he says. “Some students really love studying and reading. They contact us by calling or messaging us. But some students just don’t care, and use their free time to play games on their phones. They don’t care about any study materials. Therefore, they are way behind.”
In Kandal Province’s Loeuk Dek District, which sits on the winding Mekong River and stretches down to the Vietnam border, Peng Chheang is packing a wooden cart with seedlings. Along with his wife, who otherwise works in the assembly line of a garment factory near the capital, he’s on his way to his hectare of land to plant a crop of eggplant. COVID-19 has hit his family hard, he says. While consumer goods, especially imported produce, get more and more expensive, the price of his home-grown crops is at an uneasy low.
“When the schools closed, my children didn’t get to study online,” he says. “When they study online, they need to use a lot of money for phone data, so I just let them pause. My eldest son is now working in Kampot, after passing grade 12 automatically.”
Last December, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced that all high school students would automatically pass their final exams. For the approximately 121,000 students who had been trying to study for their exams amid the worst public health crisis in a century, it was a relief—but one that would do little to assuage mounting concerns that a generation of Cambodians was falling behind academically. In Loeuk Dek District, according to the February Save the Children study, more than 7% of students surveyed have already dropped out of school.
Phai Sarom’s eldest daughter dropped out of school in the district two years ago, when she was 16.
“She was in grade 7. She stopped studying because of the family financial situation, and I was sick,” he says.
Although Sarom now sells mangos by the roadside, while his wife farms and his eldest daughter works in Phnom Penh, it has not been enough. With his six other children stuck at home throughout the school closures, the decision to send another child—his 14-year-old daughter—to work in the capital during the pandemic has been difficult, but necessary.
“My first daughter is working at a car garage at Phsar Depo,” a market in the capital’s northwest, he says. “My second child is also working at the same place and may not go back to class. I want her to continue studying, but I have no ability. I am still sick.”
His third eldest child is not working, he adds, but has also stopped going to school.
The school closure for months and years has a huge effect on the education of many Cambodian children.
In Kampong Speu’s Oral District, Dany says children already living on the edge of poverty may see little point in going back to class.
“In the more remote villages, there are many students who stop studying and go to work,” she says. “They are in grade 7 to 8, and they stop in order to go work in the factories.”
For families of farmers and factory workers who have looked to public education as a chance for their children to break out of the cycle of menial manual labour, the last two years have been bitterly disappointing. Vuthy, the science teacher, says many students who dropped out of school felt they had no choice.
“I am very worried,” he says. “For example, I am talking about grade 9 students. Some students went to find jobs at the factories. Some became car washers or do other manual labour. I ask them and tell them that they should go back to school. But sometimes, the family’s financial situation can be a problem.”
For some parents, though, the truth looks a little more complicated. Dany says for young Cambodians, earning a wage for the first time in their lives gives them the ability to not just support their families, but to gain independence.
“If the schools close again, I don’t think many students will go back,” she says. “When they have money already, they don’t come to school again.”