Sierra Leone

In Sierra Leone, hopes of saving the school year

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Jan Sankoh, 12 years old, was out of school for nine months because of the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone. He says he looks forward to learning again. © UNICEF Sierra Leone/2015/Romero

By John James

After being shuttered by the Ebola virus, schools in Sierra Leone are set to reopen – a challenge in protecting children’s health, but also a chance to look to the future.

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone, 14 April 2015 – Jan Sankoh, 12, can’t quite decide if he wants to be an engineer or a pilot when he grows up. But whether he ends up studying plans or flying planes, he knows he needs to be in school – something he hasn’t done for nine months because of the Ebola outbreak that has killed more than 3,400 people in the country since May 2014.

“I miss school, and I miss my teacher,” Jan says. “When my teacher teaches me to understand, I miss that. And I miss my friends when we are seeking and hiding. I miss them all.”

The good news is that Jan’s primary school in Wellington, on the eastern side of Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, is opening this week. Along with around 1.8 million learners previously enrolled in school, Jan can finally return to the classroom.

Planning for the reopening of schools started at the end of 2014. Together with UNICEF and other partners, the government drew up guidelines on the safe reopening of schools in the context of Ebola. While the number of Ebola cases has dropped and the majority of districts are now without a case for more than 21 days, precautions are still needed.

“Our number-one concern remains getting to zero Ebola cases in Sierra Leone,” says UNICEF Representative Roeland Monasch. “In this context, we want to make sure children are as safe as possible both to reassure parents, and to protect their children.”

Every student’s temperature will be taken on arrival at school each morning to detect for signs of fever, and UNICEF has supplied 24,300 hand washing stations to reduce the chances of infections. UNICEF has also trained 9,000 schoolteachers in Ebola prevention, safety guidelines and psycho-social support.

UNICEF has also worked on a massive social mobilization campaign to inform communities about the reopening of schools. The concern is that the break in schooling may become permanent for some if they don’t get back into the school system soon. To encourage students to return, the Government has announced it will pay school fees for the next two years.

Out of school

Reports suggest that the extended period of school closures has had a negative impact on children, and not just in terms of delayed education.

“Some of them we see them in the communities: we see them in the market places selling,” says Elizabeth Kamara, head teacher at Jan’s primary school. “You know they are doing this child labour only for them to survive, helping their parents for them to have their daily bread. When we ask them: how are you feeling when you are not going to school, they say they feel very sad, you know. So, I think they want to come to school now – they want schools to reopen now.”

Already prior to the Ebola outbreak, figures from the Sierra Leone Education Country Status Report 2013 indicated that 233,000 children of primary school age were not attending school.

The Ebola epidemic has hit schoolchildren and teachers heavily. Preliminary results of a school needs assessment survey by the Government suggest that 181 teachers and 945 students died of Ebola virus disease, while 597 teachers and 609 students contracted the disease but survived.

Learning saves lives

In an attempt to reduce the impact of school closures, UNICEF has worked with the government to establish daily school radio programmes broadcast on 41 radio stations so children can learn at home. It is also distributing 17,000 solar-powered radios.

Still, there is no substitute for a classroom. One student who cannot wait to get back to school is Patricia Vandy, 17, who is in secondary school in Waterloo: “I like going to school because I want to improve myself and I want become a good citizen tomorrow,” she says.

Patricia says the tragedy of the Ebola outbreak has convinced her of her dream to become a medical doctor.

“This Ebola, it inspired me a lot to become a doctor, because if there were no doctors in this country, this disease will not be able to come to an end,” she says.

“I really like doctors. I really like to save lives.”