The slow return of hope after the nightmare of Ebola

27th February 2015 at 00:00
Six months after the outbreak, children are returning to school

A bucket of chlorinated water sits by every entrance of Tubman High School in Liberia. In the corridors, pupils walk slowly, careful not to touch each other.

Tubman is not unique. Across West Africa, the smell of chlorine is filling school corridors. In the playgrounds, children are conscious that they must not hug one another, tackle one another, or even shake hands.

Tubman High School is in the Liberian capital of Monrovia. The school has just reopened after the Ebola epidemic of last summer. Its gates have been closed since July, when the government decided to shut all the country's schools in order to help contain the disease.

"Clearly it was the right thing to do at the time," says Sheldon Yett, who works in Liberia for the charity Unicef. "Incidences of the disease were mounting on a daily basis."

Over the summer, Liberian streets began filling with dead bodies. "Friends, neighbours, family," Mr Yett says. "People were scared. They didn't know what was going to happen next. Everyone was panicking. There was panic in western Europe, and there was certainly panic in Liberia."

At Tubman, most of the pupils and teachers come from slum communities, where infection rates were particularly high. It wasn't long before maths teacher Alfred Payelone succumbed to the disease. He was 32 years old when he and his two children died. Tubman staff talk about him as an enthusiastic teacher who regularly offered to help colleagues with lesson plans.

"His colleagues and his students cried and wailed for him," says Alassrs Goldore, headteacher at Tubman. "They were worried as well. It could also happen to them. Because we didn't know where the transmission comes from - it's something invisible."

The next victim was 46-year-old Edward Gueh, the school's accounting teacher, who died along with his wife and three children. After this, the school closed.

More than six months later, transmission rates have fallen significantly. "Now, we don't hear death all day, every day," says Mr Goldore. The government has decided that it is safe for schools to reopen.

It is much easier to contain a disease than it is to wipe it out entirely. So, to ensure that outbreaks of Ebola remain contained, strict protocols have been put in place for all schools.

These protocols include setting up hand-washing facilities in every entrance of every school. Ideally, these should include running water and soap. But few Liberian schools operate in ideal situations.

"You just need water - not running water," says Mr Yett. "It's not realistic to think that all schools in Liberia are going to have piped water and integrated sanitation in place. That's obviously not going to happen. But most communities have ways of bringing water to a school."

Unicef has provided schools such as Tubman with chlorine, as well as barrels in which to mix it with water.

But Tubman is in the capital city. Many of the country's schools are in remote, almost-inaccessible areas. Some areas of the country can be reached only by fording rivers or by crossing rickety bridges made of logs. "It can take days," Mr Yett says. "We're doing it by helicopter, plane, barge and truck."

Because the disease spreads through physical contact, schools have also been told that pupils must sit a minimum of three feet apart from one another. Tubman's classrooms previously held an average of 58 pupils. With the new spacing regulations, this has been reduced to an average of 45.

The first lesson held in the reopened school was in hygiene, and its messages will be repeated daily. But, in order to teach these lessons effectively, teachers must first learn them themselves. "We're working with education officials, religious leaders, village chiefs," Mr Yett says. "We're using everybody we can possibly push."

All headteachers in a district will be taught how to mix the chlorine solution and how to use thermometers to take children's temperatures on a daily basis.

Alphonso Kanboh, an economics teacher at a senior school in Paynesville, east of Monrovia, has spent six months helping to educate members of his community. "We must stay away from eating bushmeat," he says. "But also things like going to funerals, shaking hands, kissing and things - all of these things are bringing about Ebola. We need to have zero tolerance."

Many education workers feared that the six-month closure of schools, coupled with fear of Ebola, would mean many children simply dropping out of school entirely. As they deliver hygiene-awareness sessions, therefore, teachers are also addressing community leaders on the importance of education.

At Tubman, 90 per cent of pupils have returned. This is usual for the first week of term, Mr Goldore says, and he is confident that the rest will return next week. He is now planning a whole-school memorial service for the two teachers who died of the disease over the summer.

"They were cremated, and that's not our tradition - our tradition is burial," Mr Goldore says. "So we will invite the families of the deceased, and the deceased will be eulogised, so that the relatives will be able to accept what has happened."

`We need to identify education as something that's a basic need to be provided'

Providing education should be as integral to emergency disaster relief as food, shelter and medical attention, according to former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard.

Ms Gillard, pictured, who is now chair of the international organisation Global Partnership for Education, says that disasters often have a devastating impact on children's schooling.

"Just as we strive to keep people fed and sheltered and make sure there's medical attention for them, we need to identify education as something that's a basic need to be provided, even in the most difficult circumstances," she tells TES.

The United Nations' Millennium Development Goals pledged to secure universal primary-school enrolment by 2015. Although huge steps have been made, 58 million children of primary school age were not enrolled in school in 2012, according to the Unesco Institute for Statistics.

Most of these children live in war-torn or disease-stricken countries. More than half are in sub-Saharan Africa.

Alongside ensuring primary education for these remaining children, Ms Gillard also believes it is vital to look at the quality of education provided. "We're not just talking about children filing into something called a school," she says. "We want children going there in order to learn."

By 2020, she says, she would like to see access to primary education for all children, and hopes that lower-secondary education will made available to most of them.

"I'd like to have solved the problem of how we can best keep children in education, even in the most desperate circumstances," Ms Gillard says. "No one is pretending this is easy. It most certainly is not. But there is now a spirit of global attention and generosity towards the needs of children and their education."

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