How do you reopen Sierra Leone schools closed for seven months by a country-wide health epidemic? What do you do when the Ebola epidemic is still not completely over, and you’re afraid to send your children back to school?
Sierra Leone schools reopen in April. But it won’t be like just turning a faucet back on. Teachers and students scattered when Ebola suspended school last year to be with family in home towns and villages. Getting students back will be a process.
Ebola is not yet gone. It continues to ebb and flow in the capital and three northern districts. Another three day countrywide shutdown starts today, Friday, March 27 to try to stamp out remaining Ebola cases. Everyone is ordered to stay home Friday through Sunday. They continue to observe the strict “no touch” policy of the last eight months and no public gatherings.
Then, Monday, March 30 last year’s ninth graders are the first to come back to school to take their senior high entrance exam. The exam was canceled last July when Ebola escalated.
What are parents to do? Keep your child at home where you believe it’s safe, or safeguard their future and let them test their way into senior high? Skip Monday’s test and they’ll be waiting months again for another chance.
I texted Center for Community Empowerment & Transformation volunteer and local teacher Abdul Phoday to hear what’s going on. “Everyone is still scared of one another,” he said. “People do gather, but with some distance because of the virus. Some of the girls who are supposed to be present for [this week’s exam review] are absent because of teenage pregnancy. They have been idling so long, they were confused by some bad boys, and are now pregnant.”
“The few who are present are not enthusiastic as usual, for they were a long time out of school. But we are doing our best to bring them on board, even though it’s not easy.”
Phoday and other teachers only have one week to prepare their students for the senior high entrance exam. They normally spend a whole month in a concentrated study camp. His school has been the exam’s district champion for the last two years. “So, we want to keep the title,“ Phoday said. “Really, it’s out of love [we do this] as we are still getting fluctuational Ebola results so everyone is still scared.”
Principal Rosaline Kaimbay attended a workshop last month to prepare principals to reopen schools. She said she’s satisfied the Ministry of Education has considered the risks and made provisions for these. Still, getting everything needed in place and implemented locally will be a big effort.
Safety first The first order of business is making the physical environment safe after Ebola. Fortunately, none of Bumpeh Chiefdom schools were used as temporary Ebola holding centers needing decontamination.
Maintaining the Ebola “no touch” policy is still needed. This means enough classroom space to keep students separated by three feet. Primary schools often pack young children in classrooms with 2 or 3 kids to a desk. They are to get additional desks to spread students out.
Sanitation at rural schools is a real dilemma. Students need to regularly wash their hands. But most schools have no water sources on-site. There’s usually no clean water nearby; not even a well. Schools are lucky to have latrines, let alone toilets. Hand washing provisions were never made. “Policy makers in Freetown don’t come upcountry and don’t know sanitation conditions here,” lamented Paramount Chief Charles Caulker.
Bumpeh Chiefdom schools will have to resort to the public handwashing stations used during the Ebola epidemic – buckets fitted with a faucet and chlorinated or disinfectant treated water that will need to be carried there. Supervising 200+ children washing their hands each time they come on-site will be a time consuming chore for teachers.
Likewise, teachers will need to take each student’s temperature every day with no-contact thermometers they’ll be supplied with. Will morning assembly songs and announcements be replaced with the hand washing – temperature taking regimen to keep on schedule?
Stress management Teachers are getting training on stress counseling for students. Those who are Ebola survivors, or who lost one or both parents or other family members are still traumatized. Being stigmatized as an Ebola family further adds to their stress. They may not yet be fully accepted by the community. These children need extra support, and their peers need more education that they pose no risk to the community.
The epidemic has put everyone under great hardship and economic stress. Then, there’s chronic stress from constant fear of the invisible enemy called Ebola.
Making up for lost time Everyone may need stress management with the school regimen they’re being asked to follow. To make up lost time, school will be held six days a week, including Saturdays, for 25 weeks. School will push through July and August, the heavy rain months when many students are normally back home helping plant rice on family farms.
I remember as a Peace Corps Volunteer trying to teach during the rainy months. We’d have to stop during an especially heavy downpour when it sounded like horses galloping over the metal roofs and you could hear nothing else. Walking miles to school on muddy roads in downpours is miserable.
Back to school campaign Our Rotifunk partner organization, the Center for Community Empowerment and Transformation (CCET) plans a back-to-school and public health campaign. Made up primarily of local teachers, CCET will be going door to door in Rotifunk and village to village in the chiefdom, encouraging parents to send their children back to school.
The way to answer parents’ questions on Ebola and the remaining risk is to reach out to them in their villages. CCET will continue public health messages on recognizing Ebola and other common disease symptoms, and what to do if you believe someone is sick. Local nurses will join in and assure people of the safety of community health clinics.
Pregnant girls and new mothers especially need counseling on seeking medical care. They’re still afraid of getting Ebola if they go to hospitals and health clinics to deliver and for pre and postnatal care. They’ve been delivering at home. More lives across the country are being lost in childbirth and from complications after birth than from Ebola.
Young mothers and their parents need to be encouraged on the girls returning to school. Becoming a mother does not need to end their education. Rather, they and their babies need the benefits education brings more than ever. But village girls face the dilemma of leaving their new baby with parents in order to go to Rotifunk for secondary school.
The Ebola epidemic has been incredibly hard. Getting life back to some semblance of normal is far from easy.