Students trickling back after Sierra Leone Ebola scare
Schools in Ebola-stricken Sierra Leone are reporting a low turnout of students returning when schools reopened April 14 after being closed since June 2014 due to the Ebola crisis.
While a few schools reported encouraging numbers during the first week of reopening, the majority recorded poor turnout.
About 70 percent of students at the Albert Academy Junior Secondary School – a United Methodist boys high school in Freetown – were reporting to school by the end of the first week, said Augusta Davies, vice principal.
However, only about 25 percent of students were in school at the same time at the United Methodist Secondary School for Girls in Freetown. The principal, Mariama Sesay, blamed the low turnout on the common habit of students not to take school seriously during first week of reopening. She believes attendance will improve in the next few weeks.
“We don’t have time to waste; learning will start on the first day of school,” Sylvester Meheaux warned a week before schools reopened. Meheaux is chairman of the conference of principals in the Western Area of the country.
Local media reported poor turnout in many other schools across the country.
Ebola cases still reported
United Methodist Bishop John K. Yambasu expressed concern about the re-emergence of Ebola in the capital just as schools are reopening.
In a recent email to staff, Yambasu said there were reports of quarantines in Aberdeen and Moa Wharf, two areas in Freetown.
“So I want to caution you all, especially those of us who still have school-going children, that we should be all the more vigilant as we send our children to school. Schools have reopened and most of our children are back in school. People are moving around and as always, transport vehicles are packed to capacity, increasing body contact and possible exposure to body fluids of likely infected persons.
“We cannot let Ebola get a foothold again in Western Urban or any area for that matter,” he said.
While new Ebola infection rates are at their lowest ebb countrywide since the outbreak, cases seem to be showing up at several locations at random, making the effort to end Ebola in the country very challenging.
Just when there was hope that Ebola in the populous Freetown metropolis was ending, new cases showed up last week, thereby increasing fears within parents of a risky decision to send their children back to school. Nearly 4,000 people have died of Ebola in Sierra Leone since the outbreak began.
“At devotion today, I spoke to the girls to be cautious about what they do and to minimize touch since Ebola is not over yet. We are encouraging the girls to wash their hands regularly after using the toilets, before and after eating. We are emphasizing hygiene at every level. We are even telling them not to shake hands,” Sesay said.
Sesay said the students will return in morning and afternoon shifts to help prevent overcrowding. Classrooms will average 40 students, she said.
Sesay further explained that teachers will be educating the girls about Ebola every day in the coming weeks so that they are adequately informed at all times. That did not happen in the first week because they were using the first week to settle down while allowing attendance to improve, the principal said.
Before schools reopened, teachers were trained by UNICEF on Ebola prevention, infection and control, and how to run schools in an Ebola outbreak situation.
The UN agency, in collaboration with the Sierra Leone Ministry of Health, is also supplying schools with infrared thermometers, sanitizing buckets, chlorine, soap and Ebola posters which the World Health Organization made a pre-requisite for schools reopening.
“We are now receiving a lot of material support from the Ministry of Education but it was The United Methodist Church first that trained our teachers and gave us materials we needed for school reopening,” said Fred Coker, principal of the Albert Academy Junior Secondary School.
Adjusting school calendar
Before the Ebola crisis, schools opened in September and closed in July. Students should be returning to school for the third term in April which is the time for promotional exams, Sesay said.
The government has set up a schools reopening committee that will plan and manage what is going to be an extraordinary school year of two terms.
Sesay intends to call a meeting of parents and teachers to share information on the school calendar.
The adjusted school year presents challenges because the rainy season in Sierra Leone peaks in August. Usually students are on vacation and return to school only when the rain is subsiding in September.
This time, they will be going to school in the heavy downpour. This will be a problem for students in the cities where most of them rely on public transport. There will be an even bigger challenge for rural students who must walk from one village to another to attend school.
Also, there are three school terms of three months each in every school year in Sierra Leone. Those have now been compressed into two terms. For the first term, schools will run for 14 weeks beginning April 14 –July 17, 2015; then close for two weeks and reopen on August 3 through November 6 when the academic year ends. That means students have to be put under pressure to do more work in order to be promoted. The adjustments will continue to be made in the subsequent academic years until 2017, when the school system is expected to catch up with their normal calendar.
Further adjustments will have to be made to accommodate the West African School Certificate Exams – for students graduating from secondary school to the university or other tertiary education. The Sierra Leone Ministry of Education alone cannot make adjustments to make provision for WASCE in the adjusted academic year because ministry sources say it is the West African Examinations Council that conducts the exams.
“Ebola has certainly interrupted the school calendar. We are using these two years to reorganize the school year,” said Mohamed S. Turay, director of the inspectorate of schools at the ministry of education.
*Jusu is director of communications for The United Methodist Church in Sierra Leone. News media contact: Vicki Brown at (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.