With the nationwide closure of schools in Liberia and Sierra Leone due to the Ebola outbreak, and with no immediate prospect of them reopening, a growing number of students are receiving their lessons via radio.
“Right now, in the midst of Ebola, the Ministry of Education has embarked on this programme - Teaching by Radio - because we want our children to be engaged academically,” said J. Maxim Blateen, the director of communications for Liberia’s Ministry of Education. “Our school-going children were just sitting at home, idle. So we wanted to bring them something to keep them learning."
Radio is the most widespread and popular form of media in Liberia and Sierra Leone, where upwards of 80 percent of households have access to a radio.
More than one million people in Liberia have already tuned in to the lessons since the programme first aired in mid-September, when schools were supposed to open.
Lessons are broadcast across dozens of local FM stations at least twice a day for 30 minutes at a time, and target children aged six and older.
In Sierra Leone, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology partnered with UNICEF and World Vision in October to target approximately 1.7 million primary and secondary school-aged children, with four, one-hour lessons each day across 41 stations.
While many of the lessons follow the national curriculum and are purely academic in nature, such as mathematics, social studies and language arts, others are focused on health and hygiene to help stop the spread of Ebola. Each lesson is followed by an assignment.
“Education is very jealous,” said Tuan Tarper, a language arts teacher in Monrovia. “Once you are not up and close to it, it will go away from you. So if a child stops learning for too long, you will see that child begin to decline.”
A number of aid agencies, along with the Ministry of Education, have also begun to supply children with home-education kits, including storybooks, paper, pencils and worksheets.
“In other emergencies, if you have displaced people, you’d normally set up temporary learning spaces until you can get kids back to school,” said Alexia Bililies, an education specialist with Save the Children. “But because of the risk of cross-infection we can’t really encourage that. So we’ve been giving kids these learning kits to keep them engaged, to give them something to do and to promote self-learning.”
Save the Children plans to initially distribute 1,000 of these kits to children in either quarantined families or interim care centres in Liberia.
“The longer kids are out of school the less likely they are to return,” Bililies said. “So since we cannot bring students together, we want to engage them so that there isn’t that risk.”
A steep learning curve
While many children told IRIN they appreciate and enjoy the radio lessons, most say it is not the same as going to school.
“For me, the lessons they are giving us on the radio are basic,” said Hannah Bangure, an 11-year-old at Services Primary School in Freetown. “They don’t go into lengthy details and the duration is very short compared to our normal school teaching. But it’s helping me to stay in touch with my education, rather than just playing all the time.”
Bangure said she misses being able to interact with her teacher and getting help on assignments.
Ten-year-old Mohamed Conteh, who would have started class 5 at the Holy Trinity Primary School in Freetown this year, said radio school has many challenges.
“I’m happy that my father bought a radio specially for me to use during this radio lessons programme,” he said. “But I miss my friends. I can’t look at the blackboard and write. Instead I have to listen very carefully, which sometimes can be hard if the place is very noisy or the reception is not good,” Conteh said, adding that there often isn’t electricity or the batteries run out.
“It isn’t easy,” agreed 13-year-old Mary Cole, a student at the Paynesville Kindergarten School in Liberia. “This is radio, so you have to listen attentively to what they are saying. But we are getting it gradually.”
Aid agencies and education officials say they are aware that radio lessons are not a perfect solution, but that they are doing the best they can, and adjusting as they go.
“This is a difficult time,” Blateen said. “But this is the only way to go right now so that they won’t forget the things they learned previously. So for now we need to encourage children to listen to the radio and analyse things from the lessons.”
Blateen said the Ministry is now working with its partners to create even more hours of programming and to better target lessons towards specific class years. In Sierra Leone, they are doing the same, including creating lessons that specifically prepare students for important moving-up or entrance exams.
Efforts are also under way to make the radio school experience more like a remote classroom.
“The goal we are trying to work towards is to make the radio lessons more interactive,” said Alfred Moses Kamara, an education programme manager for World Vision in Sierra Leone, which has been helping the Ministry create the radio school.
In Sierra Leone, for example, there are now hotlines students can call after a lesson if they have questions. However, this service is not yet available in all areas and needs the involvement of more teachers.
In Liberia, Save the Children is looking at how they can utilize mobile phone technology and text messaging to test if the lessons are being understood and how the lessons are being received.
New roles for educators
Until schools can reopen, the ministries of education in Sierra Leone and Liberia have begun using teachers and principals as social mobilizers. They train them to promote good hygiene and spread Ebola awareness messages in the fight to end the outbreak.
“We’re telling our teachers that even though you are at home, you need to engage in this community awareness,” Blateen said. “We are saying to them that they need to engage themselves and work with their community to fight this deadly Ebola because that is the only way we will resume our activities and reopen schools.”
Cole said she hopes this will happen sooner rather than later.
“The government does not want us to be infected, so the decision [to keep schools closed] is in the right direction,” she told IRIN. “But I am missing school very much. I hope Ebola will go so I can return to school.”