Ebola in Liberia: filling the education gaps

As I approach the yellow brick house I can tell that Charlesefta Yeebahy is waiting for me. The seventeen-year-old is standing in the doorway, leaning on the frame, gazing at the oh-so-familiar scenery outside her family’s home.

I ask her what she does all day since there is no school. She tells me that she is just home at home, not doing much.

“Sometimes I help my mother in the small shop she’s running, but most of the time I’m here doing nothing,” she says with a sigh.

Due to the Ebola outbreak in Liberia schools did not resume after the August break. It has been six months since Charlesefta and all the other students have been to school. And nobody knows when schools will resume.

Charlesefta tells me that she is in a real hurry to get back to school because she is going to be a doctor someday. Charlesefta’s mom is also in a hurry to send the kids back to school: she sits on the porch with us and a small wrinkle emerges between her eyes when she talks about the fact that her children – and all the children in Liberia – are missing out on a lot of education.

Charlesefta’s mom is also in a hurry to send the kids back to school: she sits on the porch with us and a small wrinkle emerges between her eyes when she talks about the fact that her children – and all the children in Liberia – are missing out on a lot of education.

(c) UNICEF Liberia/2014/Helene Sandbu Ryeng
Mrs Yeebahy – Charlesefta’s mom. (c) UNICEF Liberia/2014/Helene Sandbu Ryeng

Mrs Yeebahy is not the only one concerned, so is UNICEF. We are especially concerned about the long-term effects on children’s lives. We know that gaps in education create cracks in the foundations of a child’s future.

This is why we’re working with the Ministry of Education to repair some of these cracks and make sure that they don’t expand. In order to do that we have worked together with the Ministry to identify and develop alternative learning methods such as education programmes which air on radio on a regular basis.

The radio programmes are also a way to re-establish a daily routine which gives the children a sense of normalcy which in turn helps them to better cope with the difficult situation they are facing.

But the radio shows are not perfect. It’s hard to make programmes which are useful for both a second grader and a tenth grader. Other challenges are that not all families own a radio, and those that do can’t always afford to buy the batteries; while some children don’t have time to listen, as they work to contribute to their families’ income.

UNICEF is working with the Ministry to improve the programmes in order for more children to listen in and to incorporate new parts of the curriculum.

As trusted community members, Alphonso S Kanboh feels that teachers have a special responsibility in keeping their communities safe.
As trusted community members, Alphonso S Kanboh feels that teachers have a special responsibility in keeping their communities safe. (c) UNICEF Liberia/2014/Helene Sandbu Ryeng

Rising to the occasion
At some point, schools will resume, and right now UNICEF is assisting the Government in developing and implementing protocols in order for schools to be safe places in the context of Ebola. These vary from providing better hand washing facilities and chlorine, to establishing routines for cleaning the schools, and what to do in case a child or a teacher shows symptoms of Ebola.

I’ve also met teachers who are ready to put in the work needed to fix the cracks in children’s foundations. Teacher at Paynesville Community School, Alphonso S Kanboh, said to me that he and his colleagues will rise to the occasion. They are ready to extend the school week by one day and establish after-school classes for the children to catch up.

“This means a lot of long hours for you,” I said.

“I don’t mind,” he replied. “This is my job, and the children of Liberia need us to do this.”

The number of Ebola cases in Liberia has declined in the last months giving us hope that the target is in sight which would allow schools to reopen. Going from 100 cases a day to 10 is hard, but going from 10 to zero is even harder. So we wait, and in the meantime we will be improving the radio learning methods and doing all we can to get children back to where they should be during the day: at school.

Helene Sandbu Ryeng is a Communication Specialist with UNICEF Liberia. This story follows a visit to Paynesville, south-east of the country’s capital Monrovia.

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