More than two million pupils in Liberia and Sierra Leone are heading back to school after a six-month shutdown caused by the Ebola outbreak. Authorities have taken steps to prevent further transmissions but conditions in both countries leave room for concern.
“I am afraid to go to school,” said Sam Joekor, a 15-year-old student in Monrovia. “We are still hearing news about Ebola in some communities. You don’t know who you will come into contact with on campus, so I am really afraid. I don’t want to die from Ebola,” he told IRIN.
But according to local authorities, both countries are ready. Some schools in Liberia resumed class 16 February; the rest must open by 2 March, or face fines. Sierra Leone says it plans to reopen schools nationwide by the end of March.
“We don’t think [the decision to reopen] is premature, because we now have the ability to adequately deal with any cases that are reported, particularly in the schools,” said Abdulai Bayraytay, government spokesperson in Sierra Leone.
There and in Liberia, hundreds of teachers have been trained on how to limit transmission.
Hand-washing stations have been installed at many schools across Liberia and will soon be in place in Sierra Leone. Before any child or teacher enters the classroom, he or she must disinfect their hands with a chlorine solution. The temperature of each student and teacher will also be checked each morning.
At the first indication of fever or sickness, students will be sent to an on-campus emergency isolation room, before being referred to a local health clinic, as part of a newly created referral system in Liberia.
Liberia’s Ministry of Education says parents have also been warned against sending their children to school if they show any signs of illness.
Film by Ricci Shryock
In Liberia, more than half the schools don’t have a regular supply of water. Large quantities will have to be carried to the hand-washing stations each morning from neighboring wells.
Some schools in in the more remote areas of Liberia, where schools were originally scheduled to open nationwide on 2 February, still have not received safety supplies, such as buckets, chlorine solution or thermometers, due to poor road conditions.
“Imagine the practicality of 300 children washing their hands one by one…and then having each of their temperatures taken each morning,” said Steve Morgan, country director for Save the Children in Liberia. “There’s a real time factor for those children moving through and doing all those things before they even get into the classroom.”
While teachers have been trained on how to prevent transmission, many complain that such healthcare duties will only add to the burdens of large class sizes and lack of assistants.
“So there will be a lot of challenges and we are aware of these challenges,” Morgan said. “But that notwithstanding, it’s a great thing that kids are going back to school.”
Fear and poverty
Ramsey Kumbuyah, the deputy education minister for administration in Liberia said many children “have no hope of getting back this year [because] they lack the funding” for fees, uniforms and other supplies.
Many were orphaned by Ebola, while the parents of others lost their jobs due to the outbreak.
“My father died from the virus in August,” said 26-year-old mature high-school student Elijah Toby. “He was the only person that was responsible to pay my school fees. Now I have no hope…I have no money and my Mum is not working…. Ebola has put me way behind.”
Experts IRIN spoke to warned that many of these older students, such as Toby, will likely drop out altogether. Some, even the younger ones, may have had to take on work to help their families during the outbreak and will also not return.
Other students will be forbidden by their family to go to class for fear of catching Ebola.
“I am really worried about the safety of my children,” father Samuel Tar told IRIN, in Monrovia. “I still have doubt that they will be safe. I don’t trust the school.”
There is also concern that ongoing stigma problems could keep children who are Ebola survivors out of the classroom.
Despite the creation of ‘teaching by radio’ programs in Liberia and Sierra Leone, which allowed students across the country to listen to daily lessons and complete exercises in their homes, not everyone participated and the lessons were often generalized to include more than one class level.
“What they probably have done is help to continue to whet to the appetite to learn and continue to ensure that children were engaged in the education system,” Morgan said. “So in that sense they played an important role. But it could never be more than a bridge.”
Sierra Leone’s Inspector Directorate of the Ministry of Education, Mohamed Sillah Sesay, told IRIN: “The Ministry knew that such programs would not have a very huge impact. But we had to do something to help the students.”
Teachers, who themselves were also idle for many months, say they worry that the long delay in “real” education will affect student’s school performance.
“Ebola made our children forget lots of things in school,” said Mary Thomas, who works in Liberia. “Some of them have forgotten about basic math and hardly know how to comprehend. I am worried.”