Should the children of Liberia be in school?

childrenThe streets of Liberia are full of children. Some play in the dirt, others sell small items, whilst others wander about aimlessly. One thing is for sure, they are most often in pairs or groups: holding hands or with their arms round each other. One can’t help but wonder if they are truly safer like this than in a classroom? The Government of Liberia closed schools in August to protect children from the disease.

The Ebola Virus Disease is a terrifying illness and has claimed the lives of over 2,963 people in Liberia. Transmission of Ebola is through bodily fluids and so requires sufferers to be very close to others for it to spread. For this reason the Government of Liberia banned public gatherings, closed markets, and closed schools. The purpose was clear: to halt the rapid spread of this deadly disease.

The number of new cases has plateaued in Liberia. The exact cause of this is unproven but many believe that it is due to the change in behaviour of Liberians. On 13 November, President Sirleaf lifted the State of Emergency allowing markets to reopen once a weekend. As the Senatorial election campaigns kicked off this week, groups of candidate supporters were seen with over 4,000 congregating on Friday in central Monrovia. This prompted the Supreme Court to ban election campaigning in fear that Ebola transmission would soar again. However, the Government has not yet said that children could return to school.

Some parents have hired teachers to come to their houses and privately tutor their children. These parents fear that their children will fall behind and potentially be permanently damaged, economically, by this period without education. But not everyone can afford this. Other parents complain that they have no-one to look after their children whilst they are at work. The result is that often children are massed together and looked after by one or two community members during the day. Such child care is no better than having the children in a classroom, and if one of them fell ill it wouldn’t be long before others became sick. Or alternatively they are left alone in the home, which places children in danger of other terrible incidences.

Reports of young girls being raped in their homes while their parents are at work are increasing. A male survivor of Ebola carries the virus in his sperm up to 3 months after he recovers. The rape of young girls is terrible, but if this also leaves them infected with Ebola, the damage may be fatal.

So, is there an argument that children would be safer – physically and psychologically – if they were still in school? This would require certain measures to be put in place. With support, teachers could be taught infection prevention controls and how to identify the symptoms of Ebola. Each school could have chlorinated water at it’s entrance and electronic thermometers could be used to check the temperature of every child before entering school. Each school could have a nurse on hand to support if a child does fall sick. Every night the classrooms and toilets could be chlorinated to ensure decontamination. This would obviously be costly and resource intensive. But with the international aid sector sloshing about in the capital wouldn’t it be feasible? Having children back in school would keep them from child labour, other diseases they can pick up from hanging about in the streets, protect them from abuse and rape, and keep their minds engaged.

President Sirleaf has announced that a team of investigators will look in to whether schools can start to reopen in January. By this time children will have been out of formal education for 5 months. And in certain areas of the country, called ‘hotspots’, they have already said they will not reopen schools. Liberia already had a poor quality of education but significant work is going to be needed to get it back up and running. Many teachers have had to seek other jobs to pay their bills, others have died. At the height of the outbreak it was correct to close schools in particular areas, but the quicker they could have reopened, with the correct measures in place, the less economic and potential psychosocial damage would have been done.

For an introduction to the Ebola virus try Peter Piot’s No Time to Lose

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