At the beginning of the pandemic, when schools first closed in March 2020, we were naively optimistic that this would be a temporary transmission control response, and our students would be back with us in their classrooms relatively quickly.
In 2020, with no more than 500 reported Covid-19 cases countrywide, we handed out offline learning supplies and we patiently waited for the green light to re-open. But weeks, months… a year passed, and classroom learning remained suspended.
On 8th February 2021, we were given that green light, but only momentarily. For 5 incredible weeks, we welcomed back all of our students on rotation. For this short time, our hearts were full, and our hopes were high, but come 12th March 2021, we were shut down again.
Since then, our empty rooms have been a daily reminder of the promise we made to over 200 children and their families… That we would stand by them in their fight against poverty.
Due to the significant financial losses our families suffered from countrywide redundancies; our immediate reaction was to fight the potentiality of starvation. After months of hard work, logistical challenges and ever-changing restrictions, our critical emergency food distribution processes were running smoothly and effectively, and it was then time to turn our attention towards intensifying our “at home learning” strategy.
For 16 months, our teachers had been diligently preparing homework packages for our students to return on a fortnightly rotation. This homework scheme has allowed our teachers to maintain our student’s ongoing engagement with their education and has been monitored closely.
Upon our second forced closure, with the increasing daily cases of Covid-19, our hopes of re-opening again soon were diminished. With this knowledge, our education team began discussing what else we could do for our students from afar.
The longer that children remain out of school, the higher the chance they will not return.
Our offline homework packs were working well but without regular engagement, our teachers wanted to do more. We believe that education is the key to breaking the poverty cycle and gaining fair employment, and so we knew we needed to amplify our efforts for continued learning.
The first step was producing a revised continued learning strategy and the second step was securing the funds to facilitate it. It was for this reason that our incredible June 2021 “Double Your REACH” fundraising campaign was centred around “dropout prevention,”.
Following the success of this campaign we are now very proud to share with you the 5 core areas of development that our education team have been working on behind the scenes.
1. Online learning platforms
To gain an understanding of whether online learning would be a viable option, we first conducted a survey with our families to identify if our students had access to a smart phone to study online. The results were encouraging, and we learned that 86% of our students had access to a smart phone. With this knowledge, we were confident that introducing an online learning platform would increase engagement between teachers and students and help to motivate our learners at home.
The next hurdle was determining HOW our students would be connecting to the internet. Without Wi-Fi, most families rely on top up credit cards to add data allowances to their smart phones. Again, this is a luxury which is not a top priority for families living in extreme poverty, and so although they have access to a smart phone, often these phones do not have online data.
Launched on 24th May 2021, for this new strategy to run relatively smoothly, we have been topping up $1 internet credit cards for all 60 students from our Online classrooms every week.
The administration involved in calling families and co-ordinating these $1 top-ups is more cumbersome than you might think. In Cambodia, when phone lines go a few months without credit, they are cut-off, and so, our families phone numbers are ever-changing. To find a family’s number again, without the ability to do house visits, we need to rely on our internal map and call their neighbours to chase them up. Because of this, it took our teachers a few weeks to get a consistent list of numbers, but now, with regular credit, these phones are staying active, and our youths are online.
What are they learning?
Every day, our teachers post a variety of learning activities for our students to complete. The activities include pop quizzes, video analysis, book club, photo posting, journaling, and video sharing. To decrease screen time, our students complete their homework tasks in their notebooks and then take photos of their work and share them in the closed group, which is then reviewed by their teacher. By posting their work, they can chat to their classmates, help each other, and stay motivated from the safety of their homes.
As part of the teacher’s review process, they note down every day whether each student has submitted the requested assignments. For those students falling behind, our teachers follow up with a phone call to identify what the reason is that they have not submitted their work. Together, they work through each case with the families to ensure that it can be solved. From the data manually inputted by our education team into our homework tracker, we are so proud to announce that after 11 weeks of running these platforms, we now have a completion rate of more than 90%.
A major highlight of this program is that several of our students have reported that the phone top-ups have enabled them to access their government school classes too. Previously, without access to the internet, many of them had dropped completely off the radar, but thanks to this effort, they are now actively engaging at both REACH and their public schooling.
2. Offline learning
We are currently providing offline homework packs to 119 REACH students and have an average submission rate of 93%. The homework packs range from basic motor skill activities such as tracing and pencil control, to fill in the blank worksheets and colouring for our young learners. The students collect their homework packages every fortnight and return their completed work on a rotational basis.
Thanks to the success of our campaign, we have been able to amplify all resources that we are distributing to the kids. Each month, our offline learners are now able to receive additional stationery and supplies. We have also been able to purchase all young learners a colouring book and more pencil sets and have provided all older offline learners with short story reading books to carry out their book club tasks.
Although this is far from what we envisioned for our education department, this offline homework serves multiple purposes for our students. Importantly, it gives them the acknowledgement that they are students at REACH and key members of our school and community. It promotes self-responsibility over their own education by ensuring they are completing their work within the allocated period. Additionally, during these harsh lockdowns, it provides them with mental stimulation which is so essential for these children. Our students love receiving their homework and feel so proud of themselves when they complete it.
3. Achievement Awards
To further promote engagement among our offline and online students, our education team came up with a fantastic idea to present achievement awards to the top achievers from each class every at every fortnightly distribution. To earn an achievement award, the student does not need to score the most marks but needs to show a commitment to their studies by completing their work to the best of their ability – however high or low that ability may be. In addition to receiving a personalised certificate, students receive an outside toy such as a football or a skipping rope to play with at home and promote physical exercise. Each student also has their photo taken with their award, which is posted by the teacher in the closed platforms for their peers to compliment on their success. This simple but effective measure allows us to recognise the students that are trying their best.
4. Drop Out Prevention Calls
Every day, our teachers spend 5-10 minutes on the phone to each of their students to ask them a variety of questions about their engagement and schooling. Our teachers use this time to determine if their students have any issues with their work or if they need any further explanation to be able to complete their homework tasks. The students who have demonstrated low engagement are prioritised so that our teachers are able to motivate them towards their studies and identify if there are any problems at home that need to be addressed. If our teachers suspect that there are social issues, they refer the case to the Outreach Department so that they can follow up with the family. This scheme has attributed to the overall success of our student retention and their individual engagement in their studies.
5. Core syllabus and curriculum development
Of the four, this behind-the-scenes strategy is the largest. This rigorous program development is time intensive with long-term benefits for all teachers and students who come through REACH.
Before opening our classrooms, we selected our core teaching curriculum in line with the Ministry of Education’s official accreditation of English courses. This curriculum is comprised of student books and workbooks, beginning at “Starter” through to “Level 6”, covering a host of topics involving wide vocabulary, reading, writing, and spelling activities to stimulate English fluency.
Whilst our classrooms have been empty, with the help of volunteers we have been busy developing REACH’s educational framework which includes an independent REACH activity planner, weekly lesson plans and resource folders to compliment the Let’s Go curriculum. Every lesson is being planned out with corresponding games and activities in line with the weekly timetable. These resources have been produced for each of our four classes and adapted to their different learning levels.
This framework development will set the teaching standard at our NGO and is not only highly beneficial to our teachers and students but will also support our volunteers. When we are finally able to re-open our volunteer teaching in Cambodia placements, we will be able to equip our volunteers with the prepared daily lesson and activity planners so that they can best assist our local teachers.
So, whilst our classrooms may have been closed; our minds have been opened to the many strategies that we can implement to keep our students from dropping out of school, while also developing our education program to have the best standard possible when class resumes.
During fluid lockdowns it has been far from easy to establish and implement an entirely new remote learning strategy for over 200 children with limited human resources, BUT when we look back and see these results, we feel proud knowing REACH kids can continue to learn.
On the 1st August 2021, Education Ministry spokesman Ros Soveacha announced the planned re-opening of High Schools countrywide from either September or October. With vaccines being rolled out quickly, we are hopeful this will eventuate, and REACH can follow suit. However, if it doesn’t, our teachers and our team are fully prepared to continue doing the best we can in these most difficult circumstances.