Red Cross helps Liberian children return to school following Ebola outbreak

Publié: 28 mai 2015 14:09 CET

Anita Dullard, IFRC

Being the principal of a large school can be a challenging role, but never more so than during the Ebola outbreak in Liberia which forced the closure of the country’s more than 4,500 schools for eight months.

Reverend Matthew Borbor Barkon closed the doors of W.P.L Brumskine United Methodist School in July 2014, and reopened them in February this year with the help of the Red Cross and other agencies.

“It was a hard and necessary decision for the government to close schools, and thank God Ebola is slowing. But the impact on our students is great. We already had challenges aplenty for education in Liberia,” says Reverend Barkon.

Liberia is a country that can ill afford further challenges to education. After decades of civil war, literacy rates in Liberia were already among the world’s poorest. The most recent statistics show that 43 per cent of adults have basic literacy skills, with the literacy rate actually falling over the past ten years (UNESCO, June 2013).

Reverend Barkon says the closure was a setback for students. “Those who were the age of 18 who were supposed to have entered college, have still not graduated. Those who were going to the seventh grade in the junior school, they are behind.”

And he says the time away from the classroom has led to other complications. “Some of the guys got involved in activities that are wrong, like drinking, and  some of the girls got pregnant. While they were home, their minds were not being motivated and they got bored and went their own way.”

Education a priority

As Liberia began the downward trend to zero Ebola cases in January this year, getting children back to school became a key priority for the Red Cross. Cytirus Kerbay, national Ebola response coordinator for the Liberia National Red Cross Society, says education underpins the future of the country’s children.

“Education can influence their job and income hopes, even their health outcomes. We wanted to make sure Ebola didn’t keep students out of classrooms for longer than absolutely necessary. And we’ve done this by making sure the school environment is Ebola-free and a safe place where the children are able to learn.”

Schools reopened in February while there were still cases of Ebola. The Red Cross mobilized to ensure the Ministry of Health’s safety protocols were being met, and trained representatives from 1,016 schools to measure temperatures, check for symptoms, and ensure washing of hands. Volunteers supported schools in this way until school administrators were able to take charge of the precautionary measures.

The Red Cross continues to work with schools to address stigma faced by survivors, healthcare workers and their families. In collaboration with other agencies, the Red Cross is providing workshops for teachers and leaders to help them identify and address issues of stigma faced by students and their families.

Reverend Barkon says this pre-emptive action has been a great success. “We have not really noticed stigma because a workshop was conducted. We created a health team that the students are part of, they talk to their peers to say it is not good to stigmatize others.”

Not all students have returned to W.P.L Brumskine United Methodist School. There are still many livelihood challenges from Ebola impacting parents’ ability to get their children back to school. In Reverend Barkon’s community, mining companies and other businesses closed operations during the outbreak. This caused an increase in unemployment and has meant families are struggling to afford school fees, uniforms and other school items. But Reverend Barkon is confident that now that Liberia is Ebola-free, things will begin to return to normal.

“I enjoy imparting knowledge. It’s not just a job. Time has been wasted, but these students don’t take their education for granted. They will come back and keep striving.”