World Health Organisation (WHO) representative to Cambodia Li Ailan said school reopening process should be used as a role model for reopening other sectors currently mothballed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Li strongly supports the government’s decision to reopen schools, saying it is a decision backed by UN agencies and other international experts.
Speaking to reporters while visiting centenarians who volunteered for vaccinations in Kampong Thom province on September 6, Li said many people, including students, parents, teachers, and even the WHO and other UN bodies like UNICEF and UNESCO, had been hoping that schools would reopen as soon as possible.
She said the current evidence shows that students and schools themselves are not major drivers of Covid-19 transmissions and keeping them shut any longer could cause students real harm.
“If you look at Cambodia, transmissions mainly occurred in ... settings like casinos, factories, prisons,markets and other crowded places.
“We did not see much transmission driven by students or by schools themselves,” she said.
She said that in other countries around the world as well as in Cambodia, although schoolchildren were sometimes infected with the disease, the majority do not develop severe cases that require hospitalisation or are life-threatening.
A relatively small number of children have died from the disease, but overall out of the millions of deaths from Covid-19 worldwide, only 0.3 per cent of them have been among people under the age of 20.
According to Li, the impact of prolonged school closures could be huge as it can affect students’ mental health and social development negatively. Just as concerning, it may also cause learning setbacks where they forget the lessons they need to build on as they try to continue their studies in the next grade.
“There are no zero risk scenarios, but the risk of reopening schools is a manageable one and can be reduced through the introduction of risk mitigation measures at the schools like masking,” she said.
Li said Cambodia is entering a new phase of Covid-19 transmission. The current improvements in the country’s overall outlook are the result of non-pharmaceutical interventions in the form of vaccines in addition to steadily improving the nation’s health care capacity.
The Cambodian tourism sector also aims to reopen if possible, with the Ministry of Tourism introducing a new set of minimum standard operating procedures for four major classes of tourism businesses.
Li said there are more sectors that are keen to reopen and they will be able to soon. But those sectors should take the school’s reopening process as the example to follow for safely reopening businesses in a step-by-step manner and according to the local Covid-19 transmission risks.
“I am happy that Cambodia is in a much better situation with Covid-19 transmission. But our job has not yet been completed. The risks of Covid-19 and the Delta variant and other [strains] to come remains very high and we must continue to vaccinate as many people as we can and also continue to invest in and reinforce the healthcare sector so that we aren’t ever caught unprepared for future crisis events.
“Reopening safely means reopening gradually and cautiously. It will begin very soon but it should be step-by-step,” she said.
Prime Minister Hun Sen on September 1 instructed Minister of Education, Youth and Sport Hang Chuon Naron to prepare to reopen schools in safe areas.
Some schools in Phnom Penh, Kampong Speu, Preah Sihanouk, Preah Vihear and Kampong Cham, among others, are now set to reopen soon.
Last week, Save the Children Cambodia and other NGOs issued a report indicating that more than there million children have not been to school for the most part since March due to two blanket closure orders since the pandemic began.