United Methodists train teachers for reopening of schools

Primary and secondary school teachers at United Methodist schools in the Sierra Leone Conference were in a classroom just for them as the country prepares to reopen in April schools that have been closed since June 2014, because of the Ebola virus.

“The training is to prepare our teachers to be able to respond to health emergencies when schools re-open, especially given the situation that Ebola is not over yet. We are giving them knowledge and tools to be able to respond appropriately and safely,” said Joseph Pormai, education secretary for secondary schools at the United Methodist Sierra Leone Conference. The training was conducted by the conference education department with support from Operation Classroom, a support ministry to the Sierra Leone and Liberia education departments funded mainly by the Minnesota and Indiana Conferences

Ebola not over yet

A government lockdown March 27-29 was a final push to end Ebola in Sierra Leone. National Zero Ebola Campaign came on the heels of news just 33 new confirmed cases were reported in the week ending March 27, the lowest since June 2014. Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea have set a target of having no new cases by the middle of April. The outbreak has killed more than 10,000 people in the three countries over the past year.

Exceptions to the lockdown were made to allow Muslims to go the mosques Friday and for Christians to attend Palm Sunday church services.

The training for the 160 schoolteachers is a response to the government’s plan to reopen schools in April. The Sierra Leone Conference’s effort, which started Tuesday March 17 in Freetown and ended Monday, March 25 in Bo in southern Sierra Leone, is part of a wider national plan involving UNICEF, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the government of Sierra Leone. UNICEF also is sponsoring similar trainings around the country.

The United Methodist effort is supporting the nationwide training and consideration is being given to training at United Methodist schools in remote and hard-to-reach communities that might not be covered by the general training opportunities.

The workshop followed the Key Messages for Safe School Operations, guidelines developed “to help West African ministries of health and education reopen schools closed because of the Ebola outbreak.” The training materials, developed for countries with outbreaks of Ebola, was put together by the collaborative efforts of UNICEF, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and WHO. The training takes the form of discussions and information-sharing.

‘Here to discuss with you and think’

“We have not come here with solutions or answers to all the questions you have. We are here to discuss with you and think of ‘probable solutions’ together with you,” said Henrietta Emmanuel, a facilitator and member of the Sierra Leone Conference’s Ebola Response team at the training of the first 40 teachers March 17 in Freetown.

The Key Messages for Safe Schools Operations guidelines recommend four basic principles to help keep students, teachers and staff safe at school and help stop the Ebola spread:

  • Sick students, teachers, and staff should not come to school
  • Schools should encourage frequent hand-washing and daily disinfection and cleaning of school surfaces
  • Schools should discourage physical contact
  • Schools should follow national and local Ebola and safe school guidelines, including separating sick people and telling local health officials if someone appears to be sick with Ebola.

Some of the requirements and expectations spurred strong debates at the training sessions in Freetown. Participants expressed concern about their welfare and safety. There was mumbling and some participants expressed apprehension at the Freetown training when a facilitator jokingly said that health workers have had their fair share of the fight against Ebola and it was now the teachers’ turn to play their part – a tacit reference to the large number of health workers who became infected and died of Ebola through their job.

“I am a teacher and not a nurse. I don’t know how to take care of sick people. I want to know how much protection teachers and students will be given from those who might fall ill during school hours when we return to school,” said Satta Mambu, a female teacher at UMC Primary School in Kenema, eastern Sierra Leone, at the Bo training session.

Questions and doubts remain

Sierra Leone Ministry of Education sources said last week that the earlier plan to reopen schools in March did not work out because some schools that were used as Ebola holding and treatment centers have not all been disinfected and made ready to accommodate pupils. School reopening has now been deferred to mid-April. The disinfection of schools that served as Ebola holding and treatment centers are part of the directives in the document.

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Questions and doubts still remain and were evident at the training sessions. Teachers wanted to know, for instance, how spacing, which was a problem even before the Ebola outbreak, will be managed. Some of the schools are overcrowded with some classrooms having as high as 80 students with poor seating accommodations.

The Key Messages for Safe School Operations also provides steps school authorities must take to help keep their schools safe. Those steps include:

  • Choosing a school Ebola Response Team
  • Providing equipment and supplies such as thermometers for screening, isolation rooms, hand washing stations, soap, chlorine and gloves
  • Preparing teachers, staff, parents, students, and the community for school reopening
  • Providing regular Ebola education for students, parents, staff, and the community

Participants expressed concern about how to prevent children from touching and hugging their friends they have missed for almost a year. One teacher asked, for instance, what punishment they would give a student who hugs a friend. No one was able to provide an answer.

Other issues for discussion included how the teachers would manage the children at play and what kind of play would be allowed, how to deal with children who are traumatized because they lost loved ones to Ebola, and, how the teachers themselves would manage their trauma while trying to keep the children focused and alert.

Getting sanitized provisions together

The Sierra Leone Conference Education Department is providing sanitizing buckets, bars of soap for hand washing and sanitizers while the Ministry of Education is expected to provide every school with infrared thermometers in addition to other sanitary conditions when the schools reopen.

Teachers were encouraged to be very observant to be able to weed out for isolation children who might show signs of illness. But, emphasis was put on how that isolation would be done so that the children’s dignity and self-esteem is preserved. Signs and symptoms of Ebola were emphasized but care was urged since some signs of Ebola are similar to malaria, which is also common in the country.

Everything in life is a risk, noted the Makeni District superintendent, Mariama Bockarie, even the reopening of schools in Sierra Leone at this time. She said the Bible admonishes Christians to do their part and leave the rest to God Almighty. She asked all to do what the health officials advise, but prayed that Ebola would be over by the time schools are scheduled to reopen.

Jusu is director of communications for The United Methodist Church in Sierra Leone. News media contact: Vicki Brown at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected] 

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