Life and learning under the shadow of the Ebola virus

Sierra Leonean teachers fear education may never recover

Gabriella Jozwiak

In September, teacher Foray Turay should have welcomed 300 children to his primary school in the Sierra Leonean village of Samaya. But not a single child in the country has attended lessons since 31 July, when the government declared a state of national emergency to contain the deadly Ebola virus.

Across the three worst-affected West African countries of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, 5 million children aged between 3 and 17 are currently out of education. With more than 16,000 reported Ebola cases and in excess of 6,900 deaths, it is safer for children to stay at home than sit on crowded school benches where physical contact - the way the virus spreads - is unavoidable.

But with the outbreak still far from being under control, educationalists are concerned that pupils will miss an entire academic year, or never return to their studies.

"I really think children will not come back," Turay says. His village is situated in Tambakha - a rural chiefdom in northern Sierra Leone. Education is new to this area. In 2009, it had an estimated 9,000 primary-school-aged children but only three schools. Since then, more than 50 schools have been built by British charity Street Child. Turay was trained as part of this programme and began teaching last year.

"The parents might decide to use children in another way to raise money for the family," he says. Child labour was widespread in Sierra Leone before Ebola: 26 per cent of children aged 5-14 work, according to the latest figures from the charity Unicef.

Now Ebola has destroyed the country's economy. And with their parents unemployed, children will be asked to help with farming or earning a living.

Street Child's country director Kelfa Kargbo suggests that teenage pregnancy will also prevent girls returning to school. "Children are hiding at home," he says. "If their parents are at work, you can imagine what happens when no adult is there." Girls also risk being drawn into more exploitative professions, such as the commercial sex trade, he says.

Those left orphaned by Ebola will struggle to continue in education, too. The charity estimates that already 20,000 children across Ebola-affected countries have lost their primary caregivers. They will have to support themselves and siblings.

Rather than sitting at home, Turay has joined thousands of other teachers across the country educating communities about Ebola. Street Child has assigned 1,000 teachers a village each, which they visit daily.

Turay goes from house to house checking to see that Ebola prevention methods are observed and reports any concerns to the local Ebola taskforce. "I am really happy to have this job," he says. "Our people don't know about the danger of this disease but I can help them - this might save lives."

The Sierra Leone Teachers' Union, which represents staff in government schools, has also trained members to deliver community "sensitisation". Giving teachers a role keeps them engaged with their profession, says general secretary Davidson Kuyateh. The union has continued to pay salaries so that teachers can return to work when schools reopen.

Radio days

Another role played by union members is delivering lessons over national radio, in a project launched by the Sierra Leonean Ministry of Education in October.

Every day, teachers present three 90-minute shows pitched at primary, junior-secondary and senior-secondary levels. "Children listen and call or text comments or questions," Kuyateh says. "The difficulty is that some children do not have access to radios. But a good number are listening."

Kuyateh adds that 60 of his members have died from Ebola so far, and the organisation is currently supporting 100 living under quarantine conditions. This work has been partly funded by the UK's NUT teaching union.

Unicef is working with the government to make the radio shows more interactive. It also helped take the idea to Liberia, where similar shows launched in late November. A spokesman for the charity, Laurent Duvillier, wants local mobile phone operators to provide free texting services for schoolchildren. He also suggests that mobile phones installed with radios could help children unable to listen at home.

Not all teachers will resume teaching after Ebola is eradicated, according to a British teacher working in Sierra Leone. Miriam Mason-Sesay, who formerly taught French and RE in South London, is director of Sierra Leonean charity EducAid, which operates nine schools.

Although the charity continues to pay its teachers, Mason-Sesay says that other schools have not. "Most private schools pay them with school fees. If they're not collecting fees they can't pay," she says. "Some involved in the Ebola response taskforce will try to work for charities. People would much rather be doing things that are better paid than teaching."

EducAid's schools are unique because, as five are residential, boarders continue to receive lessons. "They sleep next to each other so it doesn't make any difference if they sit next to each other in class," Mason-Sesay says.

This has kept 250 children in education. Mason-Sesay has also put her 160 teachers to work preparing podcasts for children outside the school compound. "The sort of kids we work with are fairly vulnerable - they'll drop out permanently if we're not careful," she says.

The schools have adopted strict measures to prevent Ebola spreading. If a child leaves a school compound they cannot return. One pupil recently requested leave to attend her aunt's funeral. Corpses of Ebola victims are especially contagious, so Mason-Sesay forbade her. But the girl went anyway.

"We've had to tell her she can't come back," Mason-Sesay says. "It's awful, but her mother died the next day." So far, the pupil has no Ebola symptoms. But Mason-Sesay is concerned. "She would have hugged her mum - it's counter-humanity not to."

Mason-Sesay says the future of education in Sierra Leone is bleak. Exams have been cancelled for the academic year, and she fears the economic consequences of Ebola will kill more people when the epidemic ends. "Education was already rubbish and now we're going to be how much more rubbish?" she asks. "It's just devastating."

Ebola timeline

December 2013 Two-year-old Emile Ouamouno from Guinea, dubbed "patient zero", dies after contracting the Ebola virus. His mother, sister and grandmother also die after developing similar symptoms.

March 2014 The World Health Organisation (WHO) reports that there have been 112 cases and 70 deaths from Ebola. The disease spreads from Guinea to Liberia.

May 2014 The first cases of Ebola in Sierra Leone are confirmed. The overall death toll rises above 200.

August 2014 The World Bank announces up to $200 million (pound;127 million) in emergency assistance for Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, as it emerges that more than 1,800 lives have been lost in the epidemic.

November 2014 The WHO confirms there have been 16,129 cases and 6,928 deaths from Ebola in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. US president Barack Obama asks Congress for $6.2 billion to tackle the disease.

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Gabriella Jozwiak

Latest stories