Making schools safer during the Ebola outbreak

When the President of Sierra Leone announced that schools would reopen this Spring even if Ebola cases weren’t down to zero, we knew we were in for a challenge. There were all sorts of complexities given the health emergency, like making schools safe, and decontaminating sites that had been used as Ebola care centres.

The Ebola outbreak put a lot of our regular work on hold, including our support to the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MEST) on setting up an Education Management Information System (EMIS), with backing from DFID. This work had started in April 2014 and was going well until the process stalled in August when Ebola cases started rising exponentially.

As a monitoring and evaluation officer, I knew it was vital to track school preparedness for reopening, particularly to make sure that every school received the hygiene kits, cleaning materials and thermometers that were a key part of the reopening safety protocols.

But we didn’t have the monitoring systems in place that could provide the information we needed.

As part of Ebola protocols, all children and staff wash their hands when entering school. (c) UNICEF 2015 / Bindra
As part of Ebola protocols, all children and staff wash their hands when entering school. (c) UNICEF/2015/Bindra

Rapid and robust

On 6 April, a little more than a week before school reopening, I sat down with our Technology For Development officer, Shane O’Connor, and we knew we needed to come up with a solution that was robust and easy to deploy, one which would allow us to quickly monitor schools, at least before reopening.

In terms of the scope, we knew it was essential for the monitoring to at least cover all schools in areas with ongoing Ebola transmission as identified by the National Ebola Response Centre (NERC) – in four districts. All schools were expected to have the hygiene kits to keep children safe and we had to be proactive in identifying supply distribution gaps, where they might exist.

Three days later, we had a system in place based on UNICEF’s RapidPro open-source SMS platform. We quickly identified NGO partners on the ground and agreed who would visit which schools, and took all the partners through a crash orientation to the system the same day – Thursday. By Friday (10 April), system testing messages were coming through from the partners. By Saturday, the full roll-out of monitoring was set to commence. From Sunday, the system was up and running.

UNICEF monitored the reopening of schools in Sierra Leone using a system based on Rapid Pro SMS. (c) UNICEF / 2015 / James
UNICEF monitored the reopening of schools in Sierra Leone using a system based on Rapid Pro SMS. (c) UNICEF/2015/James

That’s a less than ideal time to set-up a national surveillance system, but in emergency situations, you just need to work fast and to work beyond the normal working hours. Anyone with an elementary mobile phone can monitor schools after a basic orientation. Users simply send a text to a shortcode and receive an automatic reply by SMS with sets of questions covering things like whether hygiene equipment has been delivered and whether it is in use.

The system has allowed the District Directors of Education to instantly receive messages about schools that had not yet received supplies and to respond accordingly. All the data received was downloaded in the UNICEF Freetown office, analysed, and shared with all partners and the country’s 14 districts twice a day.

Despite the challenges, the RapidPro system really proved its worth. In the three days prior to the opening of schools (14 April), our partners were able to conduct monitoring visits in 1,067 schools in hotspot areas and by 16 April, 2,094 schools had been monitored (1,642 schools were from hotspot communities). When we were assured that in Freetown 100 percent of safety supplies had reached schools, we could look at our own data showing exactly which schools were missing key supplies.

UNICEF supplies included more than 24,000 hygiene kits for schools. (c) UNICEF 2015 / Bindra
UNICEF supplies included more than 24,000 hygiene kits for schools. (c) UNICEF/2015 /Bindra

Snapshots could be presented each day at the NERC, helping to reassure donors and parents that safety equipment was in place. Where we received information that schools hadn’t received supplies, we were able to immediately request deliveries from the buffer stocks stored at the district level. At the end of the first week, from our data, we could see that 92 percent of schools had received hand washing kits; 88 percent had received cleaning materials; and 91 percent had received thermometers.

Importantly, having this data meant that discussions at a national level were evidence-based, rather than focused on anecdotes or impressions.

The whole experience taught me that even in a short period of time, with very limited resources, you can still set-up a really effective monitoring system which can provide a valuable service to the government and other partners, and guide action on the ground. There is now interest in incorporating our work into a ministry monitoring system that can help us track a whole range of data on schools.

Wellington Mushayi is a Monitoring and Evaluation specialist working with the Education section, UNICEF Sierra Leone

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