Since he was a young child, 13-year-old Sok* has come to the OM Cambodia base in Phnom Penh for classes. For the past 8 years or so, he has walked or cycled to the base five days a week, rain or shine.
From Mondays to Fridays, at half past one in the afternoon, Sok, along with dozens of other children and teens, would begin streaming into the backyard of the base. Those who were early would play together while waiting for their classes to begin at 2pm. And as time ticked by, bicycles would start to pile up outside the classrooms.
Currently, OM Cambodia offers three classes – English, Khmer, and Computer – in the morning and again in the afternoon, in classrooms made out of donated shipping containers. As schools in Cambodia are typically split into a morning session and an afternoon session, the classes at OM Cambodia follow the same model to cater to all students.
Sok attends English class in the afternoon, which is by far the most popular class. It has an average of 24 students in attendance every day.
The Impact of Covid-19 on Children
A learning assessment of grade 6 students in 2021 revealed that there has been a substantial decline in the proficiency levels of the students in Khmer and Mathematics
In mid-2020, schools in Cambodia were closed in the nation’s efforts to fight against the spread of Covid-19. The closure lasted for a long time, to the detriment of the academic progress of children and youth across the country. Even though schools turned to online classes and distance learning, teachers found it difficult to keep the students engaged.
Furthermore, not every child had ready access to the Internet or owned appropriate devices for online learning. Many teens from low-income families or rural areas were sent out to work or given housework to do instead of attending classes online as their family’s income had also taken a hard hit from the pandemic.
It was only in late 2021 that schools opened again gradually, though some only partially to reduce the number of students on campus. However, student attendance in both rural and urban areas has dropped, while a learning assessment of grade 6 students in November 2021 revealed that there has been a substantial decline in the proficiency levels of the students in Khmer and Mathematics.
Learning Never Stops
Back at OM Cambodia, Sok’s English teacher, Pedro, starts each class with a small game before leading the students in reciting a short passage from the Bible in Khmer. Psalm 23 is one of the passages that the students have memorized by heart.
Then he takes out an English textbook and begins teaching from it. As Pedro teaches, some of the students note down the new words in immaculate handwriting, while others raise their hands, waiting eagerly to be called on by Pedro to read aloud the English sentences in their textbook.
After 45 minutes, Pedro announces a 15-minute break, during which the students continue the games they had put on pause for class, or feast on the mangoes grown in the garden of the base. Then when time is up, everyone returns to the classroom for another 45 minutes of class before they are dismissed for the day.
When schools were closed during the pandemic, OM Cambodia continued to hold classes as they did not want the education of the children and youth to stop. Students who did not have Internet access at home would also come to the base to use the Wi-Fi network for their online classes.
And during that chaotic time, Sok came for both the morning and afternoon classes. Even now, he enthuses about the class at OM Cambodia. “I like to learn about the Bible, and my friends are here. I can really learn a lot here.”
Addressing concerns with local partners
A wide number of children’s charities and other NGOs have raised concerns about the long-term impact of Covid-19 on children’s education. Many students have lost two full years of education. Reports tell of large numbers of children who are unable to return to the classroom, either because of cost, family fear of illness, or they have been conscripted into the workforce. MTI has been actively working with local partners such as OM Cambodia to ensure continued access to education for vulnerable children.
“I like to learn about the Bible, and my friends are here. I can really learn a lot here.”Sok
*name changed to protect his identity