About 1.7 million children in Sierra Leone will be able to return to school soon as April 14 when the country reopens its schools, which have been shut down for nearly a year as the country faced a widening Ebola outbreak.
“We are cautiously optimistic that most schools will open their doors today (April 14), which is a critical first step on the road to post-Ebola recovery,” says Leslie Scott, World Vision country director for Sierra Leone.
“But there is still a tremendous amount to be done to ensure that classrooms are safe and supportive for our children.”
Nine months ago, in the throes of the worst-ever Ebola outbreak, Sierra Leone closed its schools and prohibited mass gatherings of people. At the height of the Ebola crisis, many schools were used as treatment centers, and now need to be disinfected and refurbished for children's use.
In October, World Vision helped Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports department set up educational programming for national television and 28 community radio stations to cover the country. The organization donated equipment and funded recording sessions and accommodations for teachers who prepared the on-air classes.
Instead of attending class, students could tune in and hear lessons and receive assignments as a way of continuing their education despite the nationwide school shutdown.
The Sierra Leone government estimates that 8,617 children lost one or both parents to the virus, and 1,450 children contracted the disease themselves. However, all school-aged children have borne the brunt of Ebola after sacrificing almost a year of education during school closures.
Return to education poses challenges
To help students get set for class, World Vision is helping to provide books, uniforms, and school supplies to the 58,000 children in its sponsorship program. The government has waived school fees for all children for the next two years to encourage enrollment.
“Most children are very excited about going back to school after being idle at home for so long, but many are also fearful and worried,” says Alison Schafer, World Vision’s mental health and psychosocial support specialist, who is based in Freetown.
“Although they may be concerned about the possibility of catching Ebola in the classroom, they are more worried that they’ve forgotten everything they’ve learned. They’re anxious about whether they can ever catch up.”
Alison is concerned that some pupils may never return to school.
“Many children began working — selling firewood and jobs like that — while out of school this past year,” she said. “It will be hard for struggling families to sacrifice even that small income and send their children back, especially girls. We must advocate that all children have the opportunity to return to school."
“Reopening schools is not just a one-off event. It’s going to be a months-long journey,” Schafer says. “We need to create a supportive learning environment where children feel safe to express their emotions about what they have endured.”
Alison says equipping teachers with psychosocial first aid skills is key to helping students get back to their books. She co-wrote a training manual being used nationally by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology to help teachers recognize and deal with signs of stress in children, including poor focus, irritability, and hyperactivity. World Vision has trained more than 1,000 teachers in psychosocial support skills.