Section 2: The impact of school closures in the region

Children at school in Lao PDR prior to the pandemic. Photo by Asian Development Bank via Flickr. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.


Long-standing issues have impacted the education systems of the Mekong region. At the core, the systems themselves are poor, from the infrastructure to the materials to the teacher training and capacity, particularly in Cambodia, Lao PDR and Myanmar. Not all schools have handwashing facilities and electricity, and learning resources – textbooks, pencils, and notebooks – are also often lacking. Available textbooks are outdated. Natural disasters have exacerbated these inequalities, destroying infrastructure and learning resources.1 Even in the relatively more prosperous countries of the Mekong region like Thailand, the issue remains; decades of Bangkok-centred economic growth has translated into wide variance of resource availability across the country’s 77 provinces.2

Factors adding to vulnerability: Teachers

Teacher training programs are poor, and in Cambodia, Lao PDR and Myanmar, few teachers are qualified.3 In all countries in the Mekong region, the digital literacy of teachers is low. Rote learning is a usual pedagogy in the region; in Thailand, there has been recognition that this type of pedagogy has not translated well into e-learning.4 Pedagogies typically do not take into account different needs, including disabilities and language. In Cambodia, half of the poorest children cannot read a simple sentence, and over 40% of rural children in Lao PDR cannot read a simple sentence.5

Factors adding to vulnerability: Rural Urban Divide

Inequalities exist for different students seeking to access education. The rural-urban divide is significant. For instance, many schools in rural areas are more likely to be lacking in electricity and handwashing facilities. In Myanmar, only 10% of rural students complete upper secondary school.6 Similarly, the wealth gap impacts students in all the Mekong countries.7 For instance, in Myanmar, 45% of the richest in the population complete their upper secondary schooling, while only 2% of the poorest do so.8 Rural students are also more likely to be poor and identify as an ethnic minority. The data also indicates that there are gaps in accessing education when considering ethnicity, location, and religion.9 For instance, even in locations like Cambodia, where multilingual learning has been institutionalized,10 it has been noted that children from minority language groups still face difficulties in accessing education.11

Factors adding to vulnerability: Gendered cultural norms

Gendered cultural norms in the region also impact the ability of girls to access education, as well as the tools to support their learning. Girls are less likely to attend school to begin with and are more likely to be taken out of school for a variety of reasons if they do attend. One major reason is poverty. Instead, child marriage, which predominantly impacts poor rural girls, is an unfortunate and likely outcome; it is expected that the number of child marriages will increase due to the economic downturn associated with COVID-19, as well as resulting from lockdown pregnancies, further preventing girls from returning to school.12 If girls do attend school, cultural expectations often require girls to prioritize housework and caregiving responsibilities over schoolwork, and cultural preferences for boys13 means that if a family only has one computer or smartphone, male children are more likely to receive priority and unquestioned access. Gender stereotypes include that women are not smart enough to learn science or other technical skills, as well as that women should focus on activities and skills tied to caregiving, housekeeping, and being gentle and quiet. This translates into girls being dissuaded or prevented from learning science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects. In some countries in the region, more girls complete primary school than boys, but this does not carry on throughout all school years. Generally speaking, gender inequality characterizes educational attainment in the region.14

Impact of vulnerability factors on marginalized children

All of these factors have a cumulative impact on marginalized children – migrants, rural and urban poor, Indigenous Peoples and ethnic minorities, children with disabilities, and girls – meaning that they are less likely to attend school at all, and if they do attend school, to finish their schooling. Even ethnic minorities in Vietnam, a country with a comparatively high-quality system of education in the region, have less access to education, a higher dropout rate, and later school enrolment.15 This has a cumulative impact on the level of education in the Mekong. For example, statistics indicate that as many as 5% of even the richest of the population in Cambodia and Myanmar ages 20-24 have less than 4 years of schooling.16 The situation for the poorest in Cambodia, Myanmar and Lao PDR is similarly dire: almost 40% of the poorest ages 20-24 have less than 4 years of schooling.17 Those living in regions that are primarily populated by ethnic minorities (such as Northeastern Cambodia, Shan State in Myanmar, and the Central Highlands in Vietnam) also were less likely to have attended more than 4 years of schooling than people in other locations.18

Impact due to COVID-19

The changes to education due to the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated these already significant difficulties in the provision of education to all children. School administrators, educators, and parents, unprepared to take on the additional work of supporting learning from home, have been unable to do so effectively. In Cambodia, parents reported being unaware of existing e-learning platforms and ministry announcements on e-learning19, and not all Cambodian children are accessing schooling resources or finishing the entire video or program.20 In Lao PDR, it was reported that during school closures, a third of students were not studying.21 This reflects the limited availability of resources at home, and the limited support received by children, whether by parents or teachers.22 Limited teacher capacity, especially in regard to distance learning, has significantly impacted learning.23 Less than a quarter of teachers in Cambodia assigned homework during school closures.24 Further, some students have been unable to pay the high fees for tuition.25

Children living in remote areas and ethnic minority children have experienced further issues. Difficulties have increased in regard to student engagement for teachers in remote areas, who have limited access to technology and a limited ability to meet with students and teachers face-to-face.26 Ethnic minority students, who disproportionately live in remote areas, may require education in a different language and have had their very limited options narrowed even further. In Cambodia, radio learning, with only some programs produced in a few ethnic minority languages, only reaches preschool to grade 3 children.27 In Thailand, it is expected that students who do not speak much Thai may fall behind.28 Ethnic minority students in some locations, such as in small communities in Thailand, have benefited from small-scale efforts by leaders in the community who have developed and hand-delivered learning kits to students.29

Other marginalized students encountered challenges as well. In Thailand, migrant learning centres did not reopen in July, as the other schools did.30 The centres were expected to reopen in October.31 Travel restrictions have meant that students and teachers who have returned to their home countries cannot return to Thailand, whether to study or teach.32 More limited in space than other schools, these learning centres have had trouble ensuring adherence to social distancing protocols33 and are limited in terms of basic hygiene supplies, like soap.34 In Vietnam, migrant students have been hampered by the administrative requirement of household registration, required for registering at school.35

Impact of inequalities related to ICT

The shift to distance learning modalities has also highlighted additional inequalities specifically related to ICT. To begin with, some of the countries in the Mekong region are not fully electrified. Further, many marginalized families do not own radios or TVs, let alone cable boxes, satellites, and computers. In Cambodia, more than half of all rural households do not have a TV, and over 60% do not own a radio.36 Satellite dishes and/or cable boxes are required for the education television channels in all the countries that have developed such programmes.37 38 39 Despite a recent increase in internet access, many children still do not have regular access to internet40 41 42, whether due to a lack of infrastructure43 or due to its cost44. In particular, the difficult physical geography in rural and remote areas in all Mekong countries has meant that ICT infrastructure is less likely to exist in these areas.45 For example, in Vietnam, students in remote and mountainous areas, which are primarily populated by ethnic minorities, have very limited internet access, and neither students nor teachers have smartphones.46



The digital divide during the pandemic

This digital divide has hampered learning during the pandemic. Remote learning opportunities are not accessible by all, and it is expected that it will primarily impact the most vulnerable children – those from ethnic minorities, children with disabilities, children struggling to learn, children in hard-to-reach communities, and girls.47 Potential reasons include lack of access to the internet, an inability to access the equipment, or because learning modalities do not meet needs.48 For example, even though there is high smartphone access in the remote Northeast of Cambodia, only half of students reported having access to the internet through their smartphones.49 Even TV programs are inaccessible, as they may require a digital cable box, which rural students are less likely to have.50 Even if digital access is within economic reach, infrastructure issues remain: poor wifi or reception, as well as limited access to computers for students during lockdown, limited learning even in countries with better ICT infrastructure like Thailand.51 Similarly, an analysis by UNICEF indicated that distance learning programs in Vietnam did not reach the whole country, due to the digital divide between urban and rural Vietnam, despite the country being one in the region with comparatively well-developed ICT infrastructure.52 While the internet shutdown in certain states in Myanmar was lifted in February 2021,53 recent actions by the military junta have severely restricted the internet nationally. 

Low ICT skill and digital literacy

Along with these limitations in access to ICT, the Mekong region is characterized by low ICT skill across all populations. Low digital skill level in educators54, which some reports estimate as upwards of 50% even in Thailand55, has hampered learning. So has low digital literacy.56 For example, in Cambodia, children in Northeastern provinces (Ratanakiri, Mondulkiri and Stung Treng, where about 50% of students are ethnic minorities) report that low digital literacy, especially for older teachers, is hampering e-learning.57 There is limited teacher pedagogical and ICT capacity and commitment, even though e-learning materials have been made available.58 Digital skill and fluency in students is also an issue, and this is an issue that is more likely to impact marginalized students. For instance, Cambodian ethnic minorities reported lower self-assessments of digital familiarity and confidence.59



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