The Ministry of Education recently announced the postponement of the re-opening of schools until further notice as the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps through the nation. As the government races to slow down the transmission of the coronavirus, the education sector is brought to a sustained standstill, with academic institutions suffering from huge financial losses. In an interview with Khmer Times, Mengly J Quach, Chairman and CEO of the Mengly J Quach Education PLC, says if the crisis continues, it will not only devastate academic institutions but also the overall education system in the Kingdom.
KT: What do you think about the government’s recent extension of school suspensions covering all academic institutions in the Kingdom?
Dr Mengly: Since the government ordered the suspension of all schools in Cambodia a few months ago, it urged private institutions like Aii Language Centre and American Intercon School to move to online classes or homeschooling. The recent extension means we have to continue such distance learning programmes until the situation goes back to normal. For AIS, some of our students in the General Education programme are attending our online class, but none of our students in the English programme are.
KT: Can you give us an overview of the online prog- rammes offered in your schools?
Dr Mengly: We rely on a number of applications, such as Google Classroom, Zoom, Telegram, Facebook and so on. The platform used depends on the grades, subjects and number of students in each class. This costs us more time and resources since we have to monitor each student’s progress closely.
KT: Due to COVID-19, are your schools experiencing financial struggles?
Dr Mengly: Naturally, yes. Online classrooms cost more than the regular ones since we have to equip our teachers with modern equipment and high-speed internet for teaching and monitoring the students. To make matters worse, not all parents pay for tuition while many of those who do ask us for discounts, owing to their loss of income due to COVID-19’s economic impact.
Normally, tuition fees only account for a third of the overall revenue while the rest comes from the uniform and textbook sales, bus fees, administration fees, cafeteria earnings, and so on. However now, we no longer earn from those as students cannot come to the schools at the moment.
Despite these financial losses, we still have to pay our teachers and staffers, along with our school rental. To top it off, the Ministry of Education instructed us to hold this year’s national examination on our own, which is another burden. We have no choice but to keep doing all of these. Otherwise, our students will not be able to pass their exam.
KT: With such losses, how long do you think your institutions can survive if the closure of schools continues?
Dr Mengly: If the situation does not improve soon, I think our schools will last one or two months before we are forced to suspend operations and furlough 1,450 employees. All over the country, small and medium-sized private schools that rely on monthly tuition fees have already closed their doors.
The government has proposed to property owners to lower the rents, but it was just that – a proposal, not an order. The building owners can still ask the tenants to pay in full although the schools are not generating as much revenue as before. The government also urged students to attend online classes. However, many parents could not afford these classes as they are also suffering from pay cuts or declining profits.
We blame no one but the coronavirus. However, if the crisis goes on for much longer, it will have a drastic impact on the education sector, which, in turn, will affect the Kingdom’s economy.
KT: Can you elaborate on the long-term effects of the extended school closures?
Dr Mengly: Around 200 private schools all over the country have been contributing to Cambodia’s education sector by providing quality education to tens of thousands of students. If the majority of these schools go bankrupt, the students will have to rely on public schools, where the ratio between facilities and infrastructures to the number of students are greatly disproportionate. There might not be enough teachers either.
In addition, the crisis is creating a domino effect in the sector. If the school closures persist, many teachers and employees will most likely join the country’s unemployed. They will, in turn, be unable to support their family or contribute much to the economy. It is not an exaggeration to say the education sector is the backbone of a country.
KT: What do you think is the best solution to the problem at the moment?
Dr Mengly: The only solution is to see the students returning to school. I believe this will happen by the end of this month or mid-May if the number of infections is kept to a minimum.
We are lucky since Cambodia is a very hot country – this will [allegedly] prevent the virus from spreading fast.
However, preventive measures still have to be taken seriously when the students are back in school, including asking students and teachers to wear masks and wash their hands regularly.