It’s 7am yesterday. The new school year has started in Cambodia – although it’s about two months late due to fears over COVID-19.
The Hun Sen Kang Taneong High School in Kampong Cham province’s Kang Meas district, about 45 kilometres northeast of Phnom Penh, has also done whatever it can to start the new school year in a coronavirus-free style.
Before the class begins, a teacher can be heard over a loudspeaker telling students to follow the instructions of the Ministry of Health to protect themselves from the coronavirus.
“Attention, all students! Make sure you wash your hands and wear your masks properly,” announces the teacher as the students start standing in lines for the national anthem.
Then, they disperse and go to different classes.
After many months away from school, the students appear excited to begin the new school year and to see their friends and teachers again.
“I am happy to be back at school,” says 15-year-old Deoun Phearak, who starts Grade 10 this week.
Phearak says his teachers would give assignments online for him and other students to study in teams of five or six when they were studying from home.
“We would pay more attention when learning directly with the teachers,” he admits. “But, we lacked focus when learning online, because we played too much.”
“I think we learned only about 60 percent,” adds Chea Soklita, 17, who starts her Grade 11. “Now, we are glad that we can see our friends and teachers again.”
Soklita’s classmate, Chann Makara, who is the same age, continues: “Yes, we missed each other after many months away from school. “
The students say they are worried about COVID-19, but that they will follow the instructions to avoid getting infected.
“Our teachers have told us to protect ourselves and to wear masks all the time,” says Chhun Raksa, 15. “This school has a very strict rule.”
Indeed, 41-year-old school principal Thorn Thor says his school does have very strict rules both for the students and teachers.
“We have met with the school management to discuss the discipline to be implemented at our school,” says Thor, who has been the principal at Hun Sen Kang Taneong High School for six years. “Then, we met with the teachers and told them that they must strictly follow their roles and tasks.”
The school principal says it is important that the school management needs to act as a role model for the teachers who in turn also need to show a good example for the students.
“The management must take the lead in abiding by the rules and disciplines,” says Thor, adding that he will come to school at 6.30 in the morning and leave at 12, while the students and teachers start their classes at 7 and finish at 11.
Thor says his school has imposed a strict rule not to allow students to use smartphones at school.
“They get distracted from their studies if they use smartphones,” he explains. “If they watch violent movies, they may imitate violent acts.”
The principal says he noticed the decline in the quality of the studies among the students when they were learning online at home.
“Some students lied to their parents that they were studying online,” he says. “But, they were playing video games instead.”
Thor says 96 percent of his Grade 12 students passed their high school exam in 2019 thanks to the strict rules and discipline. However, all Grade 12 students across Cambodia were allowed to pass the exam in 2020 due to COVID-19.
“During the past two years, our school has ranked as the top high school in Kampong Cham province for having the largest number of students passing their high school exams,” Thor proudly says.
He says one of the key issues is that he has warned the teachers not to commit corruption by forcing students to take paid extra classes to get good scores.
“If the students see corruption at school, they will also become corrupt civil servants in the future,” he says.
The school principal says he is also worried about COVID-19 and has done all his best to make sure that all the 1,500 or so students at his school follow the safety procedures as instructed by the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education.
“We have places for students to wash their hands and we have instructed students to wear masks all the time,” Thor says.
Chea Sokhema, 29, one of more than 50 teachers at Hun Sen Kang Taneong High School, supports the strict rules and discipline.
Sokhema, who teaches civic ethics to Grade 11 and 12 students, says she is proud that her former students have gone to universities and have gotten good jobs after leaving her school.
She says her subject has played an important role in moulding the character of the students so that they have a good future after leaving school. She says the students continue to maintain their good character which they have developed at school.
“When students study civic ethics, they can become good students,” Sokhema says. “They also become good children in the family and good citizens in society.”
She is right. The students interviewed have already set their future goals.
“I want to be an engineer,” says Phearak as Makara responds: “I want to be a lawyer and find justice in society.”
However, Soklita seems eager to help solve the current health care issue, saying: “I want to be a doctor so that I can help treat COVID-19 patients.”