The UN Development Programme (UNDP) has analysed the impact of Covid-19 on education in Cambodia and its three neighbouring countries, noting that state responses to the pandemic have not been limited to health issues but also led to “severe” socio-economic effects, echoing sentiments from the UN which has called the disease the “greatest test” it has faced since its formation.

In a report released on January 5, the UNDP studied the policies of four countries – Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia – all of which introduced various similar educational measures during periods of school closures. When schools reopened, they all reduced or cancelled planned holidays to make up for lost time.

But given limitations in terms of data on the reopening of schools and compensation schedules in Laos and Thailand, the UNDP said its analysis accounts for programmes implemented in Cambodia and Vietnam only.

The report noted that during the shutdown of Cambodia’s schools, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports introduced measures such as television and radio education programmes to enable students without internet access to stay connected.

Public schools reopened on November 2 to make up for the lost second semester but closed again on the 28th of the month until the end of the year on account of Covid-19 community transmissions.

The 2020-2021 academic school year has been rescheduled to commence on January 11 this year rather than the traditional starting date of November 1. Not counting previously scheduled summer and public holidays, school closures effectively amounted to a total of 97 days, or 33.5 per cent of the public school calendar.

The report continued that in Vietnam, learning compensation measures were introduced during the regular two-month semester break in June and July, so the effective duration of school closures was only 31 days.

Simulations showed that policy responses to Covid-19 are set to cause a drastic decline of Human Development Index (HDI) ratings in all four countries.

Cambodia has been hit hardest with aggregate HDI declining by 3.93 per cent from a score of 0.594 in 2019 to 0.571 last year. This is equivalent to erasing all progress made in human development in Cambodia over the past four years, dating back to 2016 when the rating was 0.572.

In Laos, the projected impact was slightly less severe (-2.59 per cent), followed by Thailand (-1.69 per cent); Vietnam was least affected, with an estimated contraction of 0.39 per cent.

The decline in Vietnam was just small enough for the country to maintain its status of “high human development” on par with Thailand. This is due to strong economic performance coupled with a relatively shorter period of school closures and high internet penetration rates, making distance learning possible.

The UNDP stated that Cambodia’s HDI contraction is primarily attributable to two factors: a significant decline (-11.11 per cent) in the education index due to prolonged school closures aggravated by a small internet base of 47.9 per cent coverage; and a drop of 0.9 per cent in the income index mostly due to global demand shocks relating to key exports, particularly in the garment, construction, and tourism industries.

By contrast, the other three countries had shorter durations of school closures – despite Thailand and Vietnam both reporting more cases of Covid-19 than Cambodia.

Education ministry spokesman Ros Soveacha noted that the UNDP’s study has no practical effect on education and human resource development in Cambodia, but the ministry had utilised the crisis to transform and improve implementation of the country’s education curriculum.

“Covid-19 has affected the education sector and other sectors around the world. The ministry has turned the challenging problems of the pandemic into an opportunity to strengthen digital education in accordance with the Education Strategic Plan for 2019-2023,” he said.