Examining The Effects Of Ebola On Education In Sierra Leone

The Ebola crisis of 2014-15 killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa, further damaged the economy and social setting on a large scale, and left more that ten thousand children orphaned.

In Sierra Leone, schools were closed for eight months. Following the closure of schools and a ban on public gatherings, the Sierra Leone natives  were well aware of the detrimental effects lost educational opportunities would have on their future generation. The country has had its share of setbacks, following years of civil war. The government embarked on a number of interventions to mitigate these losses, and worked with donor partners along the way.

The World Bank dispatched a team to conduct a post-Ebola needs assessment and had the following findings.

Radio programming, though flawed, maintained a link to learning during the crisis.

The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MEST) commissioned an Emergency Radio Education Program with support from UNICEF, the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), and other donor partners. The program provided daily programming based on the primary and secondary school curricula in core academic subjects including Maths, English, and civic education. Lessons were broadcast five days per week in 30-minute increments and allowed listeners to call in with questions at the end of each session.

The consensus from focus groups at various levels was that the program was a poor substitute for schools, but was taken seriously by the government and the communities, so it served a purpose of maintaining some link to education during the crisis.

RELATED: How Tablets With Literacy Apps Can Improve Reading

Community members’ confidence in health and safety measures was vital for children’s re-enrollment in school.

In April 2015, Sierra Leone reopened her schools to children, after those in neighboring Guinea and Liberia, but well before Sierra Leone reached its target of zero Ebola cases. The government’s strategy to thoroughly clean the schools and implement strict hygiene practices was essential for giving parents the confidence to send their children back.

School reopening offered an opportunity to get back to basics.

The children have forgotten everything they learned at school before Ebola,” lamented a parent in one of the focus groups. In an effort to compensate for lost learning, MEST has implemented two shortened academic years with an accelerated syllabus focused on core subjects. Given the low pre-crisis learning levels in Sierra Leone, this required a simplification of the curriculum, which was achieved with assistance from a consortium of education partners, led by the International Rescue Committee (IRC).

RELATED: Three Vital Tips For Exam Preparation

More needs to be done for full recovery—from psychosocial support to the special needs of survivors, orphans, and pregnant and mothering girls.

Although MEST provided teachers with psychosocial training to help children traumatized by the Ebola crisis, their plates are already quite full. A school management committee member noted that teachers “have a lot of work to do with the accelerated syllabus, so cannot care for the victimized children.”

Ebola orphans, survivors, and even children wrongly suspected of having Ebola continue to suffer from stigma and isolation. One boy recounted being shunned by his friends after being briefly hospitalized for asthma. The crisis also led to a spike in teenage pregnancies, which the government has tried to address through provision of alternative education for pregnant and newly mothering girls at community learning centers, but these new mothers will need considerable ongoing support to continue their education.

RELATED: What Ugandan Education Can Learn from Leicester

At the time Ebola emerged, Sierra Leone, like many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, was seeing progress in school enrollment rates, though still struggling with low learning levels among the majority of pupils. Now, to a greater extent, life has returned to normal. Sierra Leone’s experience with Ebola is a testimony to the resiliency of its people, and the recovery offers a number of opportunities to “build back better” in the education sector: from school health practices to curriculum to providing support for the neediest pupils.

First reported by The World Bank’s Education for Global Development blog.