Lessons from Ebola: how to reach the poorest children when schools reopen

When I joined the UNICEF Sierra Leone office as the chief of education in 2014, the country was at the peak of its Ebola epidemic. I walked straight into a crisis that had put over 1.8 million school-going children and adolescents out of school. The effects of Ebola are terrifying. But like many public health crises, their impact on human lives go far beyond just health. In West Africa, the epidemic’s impact on learning was devastating too. Closure of schools and universities caused serious setbacks to educations systems, resulting in loss of learning and higher drop-out rates. The closures also increased violence against children, teen pregnancies and early marriages.

In Sierra Leone, schools were closed for nine long months to stem the spread of the epidemic. This meant that thousands of children across country were idle and out on the streets. For some, it also meant exposure to all levels of exploitation without the safe space schools provide. Teenage pregnancies increased during the Ebola crisis, with a high percentage of adolescent girls undergoing first-time pregnancy during the outbreak.

While we cannot yet assess, by any means, the impact of COVID-19 school closures on children and education systems, the Ebola experience taught us that it is the poorest, most vulnerable children who are hurt the most when schools close – whether in loss of learning or impacts in other areas of their lives.

When schools reopen in the aftermath of a crisis, we cannot assume that students will return just because the school gates are open. Many children will face difficult and demanding circumstances that work against their re-entry to school. Targeted back-to-school interventions help ensure children return to school, especially if they prioritise those hardest to reach.

A young girl attentively stares at her laptop.
UNICEF/UNI322358/SchverdfingerIn Gamboa, Colon Province, Panama, Mila, 11, enjoys listening to her classmates during a live online class offered on the Zoom platform.

Two key lessons from the Ebola experience are worth considering as schools reopen after COVID-19:

  • Targeted communications help reach the poorest children. 

An effective communications strategy can ensure higher rates of school return, especially in remote rural areas. In Sierra Leone, we initiated a massive back-to-school campaign with messages – ranging from school safety measures to ways to support learners’ return to school – aimed to encourage parents and caregivers to send children back to school.

We used radio platforms to disseminate the messages since they had the widest reach. We also used community mobilization pathways developed by UNICEF Communication for Development programmes to engage communities. Whether through door-to-door messaging or “community criers” with loud-speakers, we simply integrated our back-to-school messages into existing structures to reach our audience.

In Sierra Leone, after Ebola, the government waived school and examination fees for two years to motivate parents and caregivers to send all children back to school.

The impact of such a targeted communication strategy was seen in the case of pregnant girls in Sierra Leone, who were banned by the Ministry of Education from attending school when schools reopened (this ban was reversed only in March 2020). UNICEF and partners developed a ‘bridging programme’ to help the pregnant girls continue learning. This programme allowed them to come to school after regular hours, where the same teachers taught the same curriculum offered to the other students.

Not everyone was supportive of the programme at first. Many in the communities, including teachers, were skeptical. The girls themselves faced a great deal of gender stigma.

We carried out an extensive advocacy and communications campaign to raise awareness amongst girls, their families and communities, to get the girls to enroll. We had initially planned to register 3000 pregnant girls into the bridging programme. But when the time came, a total of 14,500 girls registered. They even included those who had gotten pregnant before Ebola and wanted to join as a way to continue their education.

During the many times I visited schools implementing the bridge programmes, I met adolescent girls of various ages, some as young as 11. These visits highlighted the enormous challenges to get marginalized children, whatever their backgrounds, back into school systems after a crisis.

A boy in a backpack smiles at the camera.
UNICEF/UNI283265/HyamsFrom the exhibition “BEYOND EBOLA: Helping children rebuild their lives.” The exhibit detailed the lives of many children in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia who were exposed to ongoing trauma due to the epidemic.
  • Specific incentives facilitate the return of the poorest children to school. 

Economic impacts of a public health crisis can be life-changing in the worst ways for the poorest families. During such times, families may choose, among other things, to engage their children in income-generating activities, leading them to drop out of school altogether. When schools reopen after a pandemic like COVID-19, we need strategies to reduce the economic burden of a child’s education. In Sierra Leone, after Ebola, the government waived school and examination fees for two years to motivate parents and caregivers to send all children back to school.

With support of development partners, the government also provided learning materials to all learners, including assistive devices for children with disabilities, to attract learners to school. In addition, the government scaled-up school feeding programmes. For the poorest families who had been unable to work during quarantine, food security was a serious issue. The prospect of children getting fed in school motivated parents and communities to send them back.

National context is vital to plan strategies, and there are a number of important elements to consider when schools reopen. But not considering the needs of the poorest children, and indeed the fate of their futures, will only exacerbate the global learning crisis the world was facing before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wongani Grace Taulo is Senior Adviser, Education Section, UNICEF New York

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  1. I am a retired English language teacher, if my service is needed I am willing to teach them online.

  2. It’s like a new breathe has been breathed into me.

    I lost all hopes as final year students in my Junior High School resume School today.
    Don’t know what and how I am going to do to bring them back to school since we live in a rural community.

    These interventions are really inspiring and I urge every country to practice it and the world would soon return to normalcy than expected.
    Great program!
    Keep it up.
    God bless you.

  3. This is welcome development that will strategize the planning of schools reopening after a deadly covid-19 pandemic. This approach should be extended to other vulnerable African countries. UNICEF is capable and competent organization and her effort in this regard is highly commendable.

  4. I think every government especially in Africa needs to adopt these strategies so that vulnerable children can return to school after this pandemic

  5. The blog reveals a clever movement and clever messaging for the recovery of the upcoming challenges that lying infront of all the remotel rural areas of the undeveloped countries.

    About me, I want to inform a new idea to u, that birth in me.

    * First of all, we must give a good council to all the childrens, so that they may recover from the covid -19 health crisis. Because many of them ( students ) are infected with corona virus, so there is chance for ignorance of such students from their friends who are unaffected with corona.Due to this many of them are don’t come back to school and colleges. May be there will be chance for forming 2 groups. It is not good for our generation. So a good council about health and unknowledgement of disease is creat a pathway for back to school campaign.

    * Make sure that all of them are ensured with good kind of education facilities, if they have not, we must provide.

    * Do street drama in the public platforms about the value of education especially in the rural areas.

    * The education administration system should provide all the privileges that they have with out any time delay.

    * Make reservation system for economic backward sections and girls.

    *Make a much number of squad in each place, each squad must contains atleast 3 members, and make house visiting. They should able to convince the value of education to all the family members through videos and plays.

    * Set public transportation for all the students with concession.

    * Make a central committee to coordinate above mentioned matters. They should check it always wheather it is going on right way. Under the central committee Form subcommittee to implement the actions.

    I am Nadheen Eldhose from Ernakulam district, Kerala State , India

    Demand the impossible
    Together we can do anything impossible. We shall fight. We shall win. We shall overcome.

  6. Grate efforts. I pray Nigeria government will adopt this strategy at all educational level. For students to return accurately attractive factors need to Surround the school

  7. Thank you very much Wongani. No doubt the COVId-19 closure will have the same impact on children if lessons learnt are not implemented. Will you be doing any research on the impact of COVID-19? Many thanks.