ASEAN International School
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
This chapter aims to illustrate the impacts of COVID-19 on primary school children in Cambodia. Not being able to attend physical classes due to school closures has caused devastation in education. Primary school children, particularly in low-income families, have been hit hard and faced numerous challenges ranging from limited access to online learning to impacts on learning quality, mental health, and the acquisition of communication skills. As no one could accurately predict the end of the pandemic and the return of conventional classrooms, parents or caregivers are recommended to work closely with class teachers and schools in order to facilitate online learning for their children. Homeschooling is also recommended as an additional option to supplement the inadequacy of online learning. Unquestionably, parents’ active involvement in their children’s education during the pandemic is extremely necessary and helpful for alleviating the learning loss and other impacts caused by COVID-19.
Keywords: COVID-19; online learning; primary school children; impacts
How much have primary school children in Cambodia been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic? Since its first outbreak in early 2020 until now, COVID-19 has unquestionably devastated people’s lives globally. Public health crisis, economic downturn, and restricted travelling are some of the direct consequences of the pandemic. Without exception, the education sector has also been devastated by the pandemic.
The pandemic has led to the temporary closure of schools and universities globally (Bertling et al., 2020; Schleicher, 2020). In Cambodia, public and private schools nationwide were closed to prevent the spread of the pandemic throughout 2020 and 2021, affecting approximately 3.2 million students who had to resort to online learning to continue their education (Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport [MoEYS], 2021).
According to OECD (2020), children from disadvantaged families have been more vulnerable to the consequences of the pandemic. This is no exception to Cambodia. A study by MoEYS (2021) indicated that primary school children lost a huge amount of instructional time and experienced mental health problems such as frustration and sadness, just to name a few. They were also confronted with challenges associated with online learning, such as not being prepared for the abrupt switch from traditional learning to online learning (Heng & Sol, 2020), not having the required technological devices for online learning (Sun, 2020), having internet connectivity problems (Uon, 2020), and facing inadequate parental supports as their parents lacked the time and content knowledge, including knowledge to use digital devices, to help their children’s study online at home, and inability to use learning devices (MoEYS, 2021).
This chapter aims to highlight the major impacts of COVID-19 on primary school children in Cambodia. It discusses five types of impacts, including interruption to formal education, challenges associated with online learning, impacts on learning quality, impacts on mental health, and impacts on the acquisition of communication skills. The chapter then presents some suggestions for parents or caregivers to help their children continue their education during the pandemic.
Primary School Children and Their Characteristics
According to Article 8 in the Education Law (Royal Government of Cambodia, 2007), education in Cambodia is classified into three levels, including primary, secondary, and higher education. Primary education is deemed the first priority, thus receiving the highest state funding (MoEYS, n.d.). Primary school children fall into this education level that ranges from grade 1 to 6. These children are normally from the age of 6 to 12 and are considered young learners. The Cambridge Assessment English (2019) defined young learners as children in their first six years of formal education and are usually from 6 to 12 years old.
Young learners have some noticeable characteristics. They are usually very active and have short attention spans, and they can get bored easily (Branden, 2012). Thus, various teaching activities and techniques are needed to draw their attention to the lessons. According to Levy (2020), young learners enjoy learning through play and prefer interacting and acting to passive listening. Although their knowledge about the world is limited (Brenden, 2012), young learners are very curious and enthusiastic to discover things through which they understand the world around them (Rhalmi, 2019). However, it is worth noting that learners in this age group are slow to learn, but quick to forget (Cambridge Assessment English, 2019).
As schools in Cambodia have been closed due to COVID-19, a happy, engaging, supportive, and face-to-face learning environment that matches the characteristics of primary school children is not possible and is superseded by online learning, considered to be “a completely new experience for most children in Cambodia” (MoEYS, 2021, p. 8). There are numerous challenges that Cambodian primary school children face when schools are closed to curb the spread of COVID-19. In this chapter, five types of the impacts of COVID-19 on primary school children are discussed.
Impacts of COVID-19 on Primary School Children in Cambodia
School closure in Cambodia has forced millions of Cambodian children to conform to a new way of learning and living that differs completely from the traditional mode of learning. The children have undergone such an unprecedented experience since the beginning of 2020 when COVID-19 started to disrupt every aspect of life in Cambodia and elsewhere around the world. The resulting impacts of the pandemic on school children have been multidimensional, as discussed in the following sections.
Interruption to the Formal Education
The education sector in Cambodia has been devastated by COVID-19 (USAID, 2021). The first and most direct impact was related to school closure, disrupting formal education of primary school children across the country. As a result, about 2 million primary school children in Cambodia have been unable to attend school as normal and have lost a large amount of instructional time (MoEYS, 2021).
Schleicher (2020) highlighted that students from rich or middle-income families managed to access other learning options with their parental financial support; on the contrary, students who are from underprivileged families could not enjoy the same opportunities. After schools were shut down and conventional learning became impossible, students were practically shut out.
During the school closure, a lot of children from very poor families were found to work to contribute to familial income and help with extra household chores (Sun, 2020). Thus, they faced the risk of not returning to school and forgetting what they have learnt when schools are allowed to reopen (MoEYS, 2021).
Challenges of Online Learning for Primary School Children
Online learning is a completely new way of learning for most Cambodian students (MoEYS, 2021). Heng and Sol (2020) stressed that, due to resource shortages, Cambodian educational institutions, teachers, and students were not ready for the transformation from traditional teaching and learning methods to online learning. According to ADB (2021), there are three common distance learning modes in Cambodia, such as online platforms, educational television programs, and take-home lesson packages. For primary school students, these learning modes do not accord with their learning nature and previous learning environments which are face-to-face, collaborative, engaging, and activity-based. Hence, online learning poses challenges for them to adapt.
Another challenge for Cambodian primary school children was that they did not have the necessary learning devices required for online learning. According to a needs assessment by MoEYS (2021), parents of primary school children were unable to afford technological tools, such as smartphones, tablets, cable TV, and other expenses for their children to study online. Sun (2020) further emphasized that the challenge was worse for rural primary school children since their parents could not afford appropriate learning devices for them. As a consequence, many primary school students in rural areas have lost the opportunity to continue their education.
Internet access was also found to be a challenge associated with online learning. According to ADB (2021), households in Cambodia on average have more than 80% of mobile phones, 18% of computers and 41% of internet access at home. This indicates the limited internet access at home, which equates to less chance for students to continue their education through online learning. Without internet access, online learning is impossible. When the demand for the internet increased, problems about internet connectivity occurred (MoEYS, 2021). Uon (2020) argued that the internet speed in rural areas is slow and inadequate, making some Cambodian students unable to study online.
Another stumbling block to online learning is concerned with the inadequacy of parental support. It was found out by MoEYS (2021) that caregivers or parents did not have sufficient content knowledge as to what their children learn. They also did not have sufficient time to support their children’s learning at home, not to mention their limited ability to use different technological devices and platforms. Without sufficient parental support, it is obvious that Cambodian children are in a difficult and disadvantaged position when it comes to online learning.
Impacts on Learning Quality
Another deleterious effect of COVID-19 on education is that it has exacerbated the quality of education. The pandemic has aggravated the existing educational inequality, particularly for the underprivileged groups (USAID, 2021), and undone progress of children’s education that Cambodia has achieved over the years (Save the Children, 2020).
Doubtlessly, MoEYS has worked hard to provide e-learning platforms for Cambodian students. However, amongst those available distance learning alternatives, worksheets and paper-based learning materials were found to be the most accessible to primary school children. Educational TV programs and free online educational videos on social media and other MoEYS’ official platforms have also been beneficial (MoEYS, 2021). Despite this, these learning alternatives have not produced the learning outcomes that we long for because remote learning during the pandemic has been found to be less effective than physical classes (ADB, 2021).
In addition, the loss of instructional time also causes harm to students’ learning quality. The majority of primary school students only accessed online learning between two to three days per week and spent from only 30 minutes to one hour in total for online learning. This is a huge difference compared to the amount of instructional time they had during the physical classes before the pandemic (MoEYS, 2021).
Impacts on Mental Health
There are also impacts on mental health. According to http://www.mentalhealth.gov (2020), mental health is concerned with the well-being of our psychological, emotional, and social aspects. It affects our thinking, feeling, and action. How we handle stress, make choices, and relate to others are also determined by our mental health which is crucial for every stage of life. In addition, biological factors, life experiences, and family history can also contribute to mental health problems.
During the pandemic, mental health issues are on the rise. Nearchou et al.’s (2020) systematic review of 12 studies (seven conducted in China, two in Italy, one in Poland, one in Turkey) indicated that the pandemic engendered mental health problems causing depression and anxiety among children and teenagers aged 18 years old or younger. Furthermore, measures to contain the spread of COVID-19, such as closing schools, limiting social interactions, imposing travel restrictions, halting sports activities, and transforming to online classes, have also caused emotional distress, fear, and anxiety for children (Shah et al., 2020).
School closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic have also caused detrimental impacts on the mental well-being of students from all grade levels. Cambodian students were no exception. They experienced at least one amongst the 10 types of mental health and psychosocial stressors, including tiredness, frustration, loneliness, sadness, fear, nervousness, agitation, and anger (MoEYS, 2021). For primary school students, anger, agitation, and sadness were their three most predominant stressors, followed by frustration, fear, and loneliness (MoEYS, 2021).
Impacts on the Acquisition of Communication Skills
Students learn communication skills when socializing on campus and working with peers in classes through pair work and group work. Opportunities to acquire the necessary skills are greatly lost during school closures (ADB, 2021). Learning on the screen has been the sole means for students to meet and communicate with friends and teachers; as a result, lessons have become less engaging. Time to communicate also became less as most Cambodian students spent only 30-60 minutes per week for online classes (MoEYS, 2021). This situation negatively affects the development and acquisition of communication skills for many students. The situation will become worse when parents or caregivers resort to the use of smartphones, tablets, and other technological tools to keep their children busy so they can do some work at home.
Suggestions for Parents or Caregivers
The impacts of the pandemic are unavoidable. Nonetheless, all stakeholders can help to alleviate the severity. The following are some suggestions for parents or caregivers to support their beloved children in continuing their education at home or online during this crisis.
First, parents should practice homeschooling to support their children’s education. Ceceri (2019) argued that because of the concern for safety, religious preference, and educational benefits, some parents tend to homeschool their children. In this sense, homeschooling can be the best alternative to complement online learning during the pandemic. Parents can choose to teach only key subjects like Khmer and mathematics while homeschooling their children. They can also decide what to teach, how to teach, and plan the activities based on their available time and learning styles, interests, and preferences of their children.
Second, parents should also take advantage of free educational applications which are available online using their smartphones or tablets. They can download learning apps that can help their children practice math exercises, English words, puzzles, and many more. According to Ghara (2020), educational technology and digital platforms will continue to perform more significant functions in the education system. The educational apps which are fun and easy to use will keep children engaged and motivated. Therefore, homeschooling parents should set a specific timetable for their children to use those educational apps.
Third, when schools are closed due to COVID-19, parents’ involvement is extremely important. Unquestionably, parental involvement helps improve children’s academic achievement and behaviors (Chen, 2021). Thus, to contribute to their children’s education during the pandemic, parents should engage in some activities that support their children’s learning. They can spend time checking their children’s work and helping them with classwork after coming home from work. If possible, parents or caregivers should stay near their children while they are learning online so that they can help them navigate online classes. Additionally, since stress is unavoidable during the school closure, parents should create fun times or activities at home for their children. Spending time together with children on joyful activities will help the children reduce their stress and build closer parent-children bonds. Parents should also create and maintain a good relationship with school and especially class teachers so that they can ask for effective and meaningful assistance. Parents-school relationships not only nurture children but also support their development (Hearron & Hilderbrand, 2007).
Finally, parents should consider creating a home-based independent learning habit for their children. In this learning habit, children are supposed to do self-study at home in the evening or at night. Without a doubt, children must clearly understand why they need it and how it will be like. Parents should also organize a suitable learning space for their children. Self-study can include such activities as reviewing the lessons, doing math exercises, and completing parents-assigned tasks. The length of the self-study will rely on the children’s age and grade level. These independent learning activities reflect parents’ care, commitment, support, and future plan to help children build a solid foundation for being proactive and life-long learners.
Because of the nationwide school closures, Cambodian primary school children have unquestionably encountered pronounced impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic. These multifaceted effects induced by COVID-19 include disruption to formal education, challenges associated with online learning, impacts on existing educational progress, issues of mental health, and impacts on children’s opportunities to learn crucial communication skills. Given these impacts, all stakeholders need to work together with the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport to mitigate the learning loss and other impacts on Cambodian school children. Parents or caregivers in particular need to perform their critical roles at home for the sake of their children’s education and well-being, particularly during the pandemic.
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