Students at J.J. Roberts United Methodist School, one of 60 schools the denomination operates in Liberia, were eager to return to classes after schools closed in late July because of Ebola.
“When you sit home for too long, catching up with courses can be very difficult, therefore it was important for schools to reopen because we were at home for seven months,” said Alfred Morris, a 10th grader, after students returned to school on March 2.
Ebola still casts a shadow over schools, where students worry about physical contact and principals struggle to meet government mandates about hand-washing and safety.
“At times, when a person is coming close to you, you’re a bit afraid [because] Ebola is still around. We don’t have as much fun or physical contact with friends,” said Womi Kennedy, 15.
Maria Shaffi, 15, said Ebola makes it even more important to move forward with education.
“It is actually education that will help us with safety [measures] and a better future to fight crises like Ebola rather than sitting at home.”
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Last known Ebola patient released
While the last known Ebola patient in Liberia has been released from treatment, the World Health Organization warns that fresh outbreaks could occur. Ebola has claimed nearly 10,000 lives, mostly in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, and as of March 5, nearly 24,000 cases of the disease have been reported in those countries.
Many questioned if schools could be opened safely, since both private and public schools are often in deplorable condition, with poorly constructed buildings, overcrowded classrooms, and limited or no access to water and bathrooms. That means carrying water in for multiple hand-washing stations.
Helen Roberts, a United Methodist Board of Global Ministries missionary who serves as director of the denomination’s Department of General Education and Ministry, talked about some of the concerns. Liberia has about 5,200 schools.
“The important thing is that we open safe schools – meaning that schools receive and adhere to the various protocols put in place by the Ministry of Education,” said Roberts, the liaison between the Liberia Conference’s education department and the government’s Ministry of Education.
Protocols include schools providing a room for “safe sitting” for students showing high fever or suspected symptoms of Ebola. Schools must have a health staffer, although not a nurse or doctor.
International organizations such as UNICEF and USAID have targeted resources toward helping schools re-open and are leading trainings on safeguarding students and staff.
Standards hard to meet
J.J. Roberts United Methodist School is in Sinkor, a Monrovia neighborhood. The majority of about 900 students here have parents who are professionals and well off by Liberian standards.
Vice Principal James Gwee said the protocols on hand-washing and other Ebola safety measures were not too hard for his school, since it already has standard health and safety measures in place. “It was only a matter of augmenting those procedures,” he said.
But the eight-month idle period was damaging. “The teachers had to maintain themselves without salary and students were simply sitting at home,” he said.
Lamin Kamara, who has a 9-year-old child at J.J. Roberts, agrees with Gwee that the majority of parents were concerned about students not learning. But he also had concerns about the schools reopening.
“I had initial apprehension. . . . particularly with the various branches of government debating the dates when schools should actually reopen,” he said.
When he saw the elaborate precautions in place, Kamara said he felt it was safe for his son to return.
Principal both apprehensive and hopeful
C.W Duncan United Methodist School, located in Clara Town, a crowded and bustling portion of downtown Monrovia, had a tougher time getting ready to open.
Principal S. Emmanuel Kempeh said a few days before the school opened on March 2 that he was both apprehensive and hopeful.
The school, in a former private residence, has 386 students in makeshift classrooms. With poor ventilation and no water source visible, Kempeh worries how he and his administrative team will handle all of the safety protocols.
Although the ministry and international partners provided supplies (including the hand-washing stations, chlorine and Ebola awareness materials) for the reopening of some schools, C.W. Duncan did not receive any. So Kempeh and his team must stretch already meager resources.
“To be frank, the standards of safety measures put in place are not realistic, given the current school conditions [such as] over crowdedness and poverty,” Kempeh said.
A third-grade teacher, Martha S. Smith, said her young students must be repeatedly told not to wash hands and to refrain from touching each other.
Students with high temperatures
At the College of West Africa, a United Methodist high school in Monrovia, Richard Wiah, president or principal, said students whose temperature reads high are encouraged to rest. Then the temperature is taken again to make sure the first reading was not influenced by other factors.
“Once your temperature reads 38.5 (Celsius) and above, we call your parents to come and pick you up,” Wiah said.
Dunbar, founder of Sankofa Inc. Agribusiness and former program manager in West Africa for United Methodist Committee on Relief, is based in Liberia. Julu Swen, editor and publisher of West African Writers, an online publication about United Methodist happenings in West Africa, contributed to this story.
News media contact: Vicki Brown, news editor, [email protected] or 615-742-5470.