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Resilience in Crisis: First indications of why children’s reading scores increased during the COVID-19 pandemic in Cambodia
Resilience in Crisis: First indications of why children’s reading scores increased during the COVID-19 pandemic in Cambodia
April 19, 2022
Cambodia Stories

During a pandemic, it would be understandable to expect student learning loss during disruptions to education due to school closures. However, the USAID All Children Reading—Cambodia (ACR—Cambodia), COVID-19 Impact on Learning study found that first grade students continued to develop early literacy skills during the pandemic, performing better on some skills than they did in pre-pandemic 2019.

In fact, students improved on all literacy skills that were tested on the Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA). Most notably, students’ ability to correctly identify letter sounds saw statistically significant growth. This growth occurred for both the control group as well as the intervention group, despite schools being closed March through September of 2020. This is significant because it was generally assumed literacy skills would wane during the pandemic-related school closures.

USAID’s All Children Reading—Asia follow-up Return to Learning study provided insight into these unexpected results.

The Return to Learning study investigated responses from the ACR—Cambodia program conducted qualitative interviews in eight schools[1] with participation from school directors, teachers, and parents to uncover how schools and families were responding to the disruption to education caused by the pandemic.

The Return to Learning study found three main stages of response to disruption in learning:

Schools closed

March – August 2020

Initial school closures—Remote Learning

After initial school closures in March 2020, the ACR—Cambodia program and MoEYS directed schools to ensure that early grades students and their caregivers had access to learning materials and continued support to continue learning from home. MoEYS provided funds for schools to print worksheets, which were distributed to families through the communities. ACR—Cambodia provided additional resources that were sent home with students as well as provided digitally. MoEYS also created an online learning platform with instructional videos for students to watch.

Teachers who blended their approach to reaching students by using a combination of e-learning (e.g., social media, text messages) and community visits reached at least 71% of their enrolled students during school closures.

In many instances, communications between schools, teachers, and parents promoted school-home collaborative support for student learning.

“I admired the efforts of the teachers. Sometimes when they could not contact us, they came directly to our household.

They tried their best to help teach the children.”


Schools re-open

September – November 2020, January – March 2021

Schools re-open

In September 2020, MoEYS directed schools to reopen and focus on Khmer language and mathematics learning in the early grades. Due to safety concerns, students were permitted in school three days per week in classes of no more than twenty students.

Teachers and school directors discussed how they assessed the learning loss of their students upon return to school and arranged varied methods of remedial support. Teachers were expected to adjust the pace of learning and not rush through as much of the curriculum as possible.

Schools closed

March 2021

Schools re-close—return to Remote Learning

In March 2021, schools re-closed due to a spike in the number of positive COVID-19 cases in Cambodia. Travel restrictions were introduced due to safety concerns. Teachers were not permitted to travel to the communities to work with their students.

Most teachers struggled to communicate and deliver learning resources to students due to parent and community access to and use of technology.

SEP 2021 2020 MAR Initial school closures—Remote Learning Schools re-open Schools re-close—Remote Learning Teachers travel to communities to instruct their students and communicate guidance to parents​. MoEYS introduces online learning platform. MoEYS develops worksheets. Schools distribute worksheets to students electronically and in-person. Schools instructed to focus on early grade learning and mathematics.​ Travel restrictions on teachers prohibit them from visiting their students. Teachers deliver learning resources virtually.​ USAID ACR—Cambodia prepares additional digital storybooks for students in the program. Parents directed to online learning platform​. Schools re-open NOV USAID ACR—Cambodia prepares take-home books and distance learning workbooks. MAR
Schools re-open

November 2021

Schools Re-open

Schools re-open

Key Takeaways

While the Return to Learning study findings are not generalizable, they indicate that MoEYS demonstrated adaptive resilience[2] by:

  • setting expectations for continued student learning,
  • modifying the curriculum content to be covered and the pace of teaching, and
  • providing funds and resources to help schools and families collaborate to support learning throughout the pandemic.

MoEYS demonstrated transformative resilience by creating online learning resources that can be used to address any vulnerabilities arising from future school closures.

“Every day, I write on the blackboards of my teachers, ‘How can we support the parents?’”

School Director

Schools re-open
Schools implemented locally driven solutions to meet MoEYS expectations.
Schools re-open
Teachers were proactive in reaching their students during initial school closures.
Schools re-open
School directors supported teachers and held them to expectations.
Schools re-open
Access to learning was most equitable when teachers used online and in-person approaches to reach students.
Schools re-open
Schools and communities collaborated with a shared goal of continued learning for early grade students.

[1] The schools were located in Kampong Thom and Battambang provinces.

[2] USAID, 2019. “White Paper Transforming Systems in Times of Adversity: Education and Resilience.”

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