While people were preparing for the Khmer New Year celebrations, the uninvited guest Covid-19 had turned the world topsy-turvy.
The virus was unsparing, striking both remote villages and the great cities of the world — from Asia to Europe and the Americas — taking innocent lives and pummelling economies.
The lightning spread of the deadly novel coronavirus dwarfed the ferocity of the previous life-threatening Ebola and Sars (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreaks, triggering an unparalleled global healthcare emergency in recent times.
The Covid-19 narrative differed slightly in Cambodia.
The Kingdom was also not insulated, but it has so far largely managed to repel the pandemic.
The government’s timely actions to restrict people’s movements coupled with a nationwide awareness campaign on the risks of Covid-19 stemmed the spread of the virus.
Infections have hovered around 122 cases.
However, the global pandemic’s spillover has hurt key revenue-generating sectors – from garment production to tourism and retail.
Once noisy airports and busy hotels became deserted, while bustling garment factories fell silent as the machines paused – adding to the Kingdom’s economic pains.
The private education sector could also not escape the impact of Covid-19. Schools were shut, resulting in empty classrooms, with teachers and pupils forced to adapt after social distancing was introduced.
Private school operators have complained about dwindling revenues not meeting operational costs. Costly rents and the paying of staff salaries on strained incomes will threaten the survival of scores of private institutions in these trying times, some educationists have cautioned.
A sector once hailed as buoyant could face an existential threat if remedial measures are not introduced quickly.
A magic pill is still not visible on the horizon, at least for the moment.
However, fast-evolving and easily accessible technologies have to some degree helped mitigate the predicament facing Cambodian education.
Zoom, YouTube and Google Classroom, among other platforms, quickly filled the void created by deserted classrooms.
But technology may not be a panacea for the sector’s woes.
Can there be a transition to virtual classrooms without a sacrificing of quality?
A myriad challenges exist. The digital divide, for instance – with underserved rural students less able to access the latest technology than their urban counterparts.
The availability of affordable data plans and stable internet connectivity, particularly in rural areas, is key to the success of remote teaching.
Pedagogical methods will need to shift from traditional teaching to suit virtual classrooms, and teachers and students must therefore be able to adapt to a new setting.
One particular difficulty is remotely monitoring students’ punctuality, checking if they have logged on for their lessons and have completed their work diligently.
Will ensuring this by supervising their children at home eat into busy parents’ valuable time?
As underprivileged students remain out of the classroom, they will also miss the government-supported free nutritional meals served during school hours.
Some 260,000 Cambodian children are missing their free breakfast, while millions of students will be wondering when they will rejoin their school friends and teachers in the classroom.