Frontline Stories

Mass Return to School in Ebola-stricken Sierra Leone


Some 1.7 million children returned to school in Sierra Leone on 14 April after a nine-month hiatus during the Ebola epidemic, but some may be burdened by more than books and backpacks as they head to class.

''Most children are very excited about going back to school after being idled at home for so long, but many are also fearful and worried,'' says Alison Schafer, World Vision’s mental health and psychosocial support specialist. ''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.''

''Children in Sierra Leone have been directly or indirectly affected by the Ebola crisis,'' says Schafer. The government estimated that 8,617 children have lost one or both parents to the virus, and 1,450 children have 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.

''Re-opening schools is not just a one-off event. It’s going to be a months-long journey,'' notes Schafer. ''We need to create a supportive learning environment where children feel safe to express their emotions about what they have endured.''

''The task of resettling a nation of children whose lives have been so profoundly disrupted is daunting. Equipping teachers with psychological first-aid skills is key to helping students get back to their books,'' says Schafer. She co-wrote a training manual being used nationally by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology to help teachers recognise 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.

Some government critics warn that not all schools will be ready to open. During the height of the Ebola crisis, many schools were used as treatment centres, and now need to be disinfected and refurbished.

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 programme. The government has waived school fees for all children for the next two years to encourage enrolment.

Schafer is concerned that some pupils may never return to school. ''Many children began working 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.''

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