Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Life and Learning under the Shadow of the Ebola Virus

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Life and Learning under the Shadow of the Ebola Virus

Article excerpt

Sierra Leonean teachers fear education may never recover

In September, teacher Foray Turay should have welcomed 300 children to his primary school in the Sierra Leonean village of Samaya. But not a single child in the country has attended lessons since 31 July, when the government declared a state of national emergency to contain the deadly Ebola virus.

Across the three worst-affected West African countries of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, 5 million children aged between 3 and 17 are currently out of education. With more than 16,000 reported Ebola cases and in excess of 6,900 deaths, it is safer for children to stay at home than sit on crowded school benches where physical contact - the way the virus spreads - is unavoidable.

But with the outbreak still far from being under control, educationalists are concerned that pupils will miss an entire academic year, or never return to their studies.

"I really think children will not come back," Turay says. His village is situated in Tambakha - a rural chiefdom in northern Sierra Leone. Education is new to this area. In 2009, it had an estimated 9,000 primary-school-aged children but only three schools. Since then, more than 50 schools have been built by British charity Street Child. Turay was trained as part of this programme and began teaching last year.

"The parents might decide to use children in another way to raise money for the family," he says. Child labour was widespread in Sierra Leone before Ebola: 26 per cent of children aged 5-14 work, according to the latest figures from the charity Unicef (bit.ly/UnicefLabour).

Now Ebola has destroyed the country's economy. And with their parents unemployed, children will be asked to help with farming or earning a living.

Street Child's country director Kelfa Kargbo suggests that teenage pregnancy will also prevent girls returning to school. "Children are hiding at home," he says. "If their parents are at work, you can imagine what happens when no adult is there." Girls also risk being drawn into more exploitative professions, such as the commercial sex trade, he says.

Those left orphaned by Ebola will struggle to continue in education, too. The charity estimates that already 20,000 children across Ebola-affected countries have lost their primary caregivers. They will have to support themselves and siblings.

Rather than sitting at home, Turay has joined thousands of other teachers across the country educating communities about Ebola. Street Child has assigned 1,000 teachers a village each, which they visit daily.

Turay goes from house to house checking to see that Ebola prevention methods are observed and reports any concerns to the local Ebola taskforce. "I am really happy to have this job," he says. "Our people don't know about the danger of this disease but I can help them - this might save lives."

The Sierra Leone Teachers' Union, which represents staff in government schools, has also trained members to deliver community "sensitisation". Giving teachers a role keeps them engaged with their profession, says general secretary Davidson Kuyateh. The union has continued to pay salaries so that teachers can return to work when schools reopen.

Radio days

Another role played by union members is delivering lessons over national radio, in a project launched by the Sierra Leonean Ministry of Education in October.

Every day, teachers present three 90-minute shows pitched at primary, junior-secondary and senior-secondary levels. "Children listen and call or text comments or questions," Kuyateh says. "The difficulty is that some children do not have access to radios. …

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