UN urges school reopenings

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
At Chaktomuk Primary School in Phnom Penh’s Daun Penh district on January 11. Heng Chivoan

The UN in Cambodia has encouraged the government to prioritise school reopening as soon as possible to avoid further declines in human capital development.

In a press release on July 20, it said education is critical to children’s personal growth and lifetime prospects. It plays a key role in alleviating poverty, reducing inequality and driving sustainable development.

The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted education and school attendance globally. In Cambodia, schools have been suspended for over 200 days since March 2020, interrupting the study of approximately 3.2 million students, it said.

Education losses, it said, drive drastic declines in human development, with estimates of Cambodia’s Human Development Index (HDI) for 2020 revealing a decline of 3.93 per cent from 2019, equivalent to erasing all progress made in the past four years.

As it was not yet known when schools might reopen, the risk of children never returning to school increases with time, especially for children from vulnerable groups.

“Education is a fundamental human right and a driver of progress across all 17 sustainable development goals. The UN continues to encourage and support the Royal Government of Cambodia to prioritise the safe reopening of schools at the earliest moment possible and to keep them open to the extent possible, in order to avoid further declines in human development,” it said.

The pandemic, it added, has exacerbated existing inequalities and risks deepening the digital divide. The school closures have an impact beyond learning, affecting the ability of many parents and carers, especially women, to work. This, in turn, has reduced access to nutritious food for many children and increased the risks of violence against them.

“Global evidence continues to show that schools are not the main drivers of transmission and can be reopened safely,” the UN said.

It said a recent study demonstrated that children have unequal opportunities to continue their learning, leading to substantive learning losses across all levels.

Prime Minister Hun Sen said last week that the Kingdom plans to vaccinate about two million children and adolescents aged 12 to 17 across the country in order to reopen schools, at least from the secondary level.

“The United Nations acknowledges the recent announcement by the Royal Government that the country is considering Covid-19 vaccinations for children aged 12-17 years,” the UN’s statement said.

It also commended the government’s initiative to prioritise vaccinations for teachers. Cambodia is one of the 17 countries to have prioritised vaccination for teachers and to date have vaccinated approximately 85 per cent of teachers at both public and private schools.

To support the safe reopening of schools during 2020, the UN has provided basic cleaning and hygiene supplies to all of Cambodia’s 13,300 public schools, benefitting 3.2 million students.

With funding partners, the UN distributed $4.2 million as block grants to primary and lower secondary schools nationwide prior to the start of the new academic year in January.