As middle and high schools reopened this week across the country, Prime Minister Hun Sen has announced a vaccination campaign for children aged 6 to 11 in order to safely reopen primary schools as well.
In Phnom Penh, over 200 private and public middle and high schools reopened their doors on September 15 following their closure for over seven months due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the advent of widespread community transmission in Cambodia following the February 20 outbreak.
For the first day that school was back in session, municipal governor Khuong Sreng went to inspect some of the facilities to verify that they were in compliance with Covid-19 preventive measures introduced by the health and education ministries.
Sreng noted that any school where 10 per cent of the students and teachers in a given classroom test positive for Covid-19 will be subject to abrupt closure.
He stressed that this reopening is not like the start of past school academic years and that only middle and high schools in areas with low enough transmission rates that are able to follow the education ministry’s standard operating procedures (SOP) have been allowed to resume classes in-person.
“If there is an outbreak at any school, we will shut it down immediately. But if there is transmission only in one classroom, we will treat it the same way we do households or factories,” he said, referring to a policy of isolating those who had come in contact with the infected and using partial closures to cut off transmission.
Sreng said his administration remains concerned about the possibility of another wave of transmission and that an oversight group has been set up at each school to ensure enforcement of the health measures and SOPs including rapid tests for teachers and staff.
According to the municipality’s figures, a total of 10,443 teachers in Phnom Penh took rapid tests recently in advance of school resuming and 24 of them tested positive.
The teachers who tested positive were all vaccinated and were asymptomatic cases. Sreng said this indicates that while vaccinees can still contract the virus despite vaccinations, the jabs appeared to be giving them robust protection against developing serious illness from the virus.
Seng Sok Chamroeun, a Grade 12 student at Preah Sisowath High School, said she was happy to be returning to school. Although the return might pose some health risks, she said it was worth it because learning in-person in a classroom environment allowed her much greater ability to focus.
“I felt relieved to see that my school had really good preparations in place. We took temperatures, sanitised our hands and the classroom was cleaned. There are only 15 students in each classroom. So I feel secure and safe in learning here, plus I am fully vaccinated,” she said.
In neighbouring Kandal province, provincial governor Kong Sophoan said 101 middle schools and 39 high schools were allowed to reopen utilising the education ministry’s SOPs in this first phase beginning on September 15.
Provincial education department director Cheng Sam Ol said the schools permitted to reopen had students from grades 9 to 12.
In order to proceed with the reopening for primary schools, Prime Minister Hun Sen has given permission for Covid-19 vaccinations to be administered to over 1.8 million children ages 6 to under 12 nationwide starting from September 17.
Hun Sen also hinted that vaccinations for children ages 3 to 6 may follow in the near future.
In an audio message addressed to all municipal and provincial governors on September 15, he said this will enable schools at all levels to reopen soon.
The prime minister noted that Covid-19 vaccinations for these age groups have already been carried out in some countries and there has been no indication of any problems related to the practice.
According to the figure that I’ve received from [Minister of Economy and Finance] Aun Pornmonirath, there are just more than 1.8 million of children [aged 6-11]. So, I’ve decided to start another campaign on Friday to vaccinate them after nearly completing vaccinations for the [12-17] age group,” he said.
Chinese-made Sinovac vaccines will primarily be used for this age group, he noted.