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The impact of Ebola on education in Sierra Leone

Shawn Powers's picture
Also available in: Español
With the contribution of Kali Azzi-Huck, Anusha Ramakrishnan, and Yinan Zhang
A portrait of Selina Dougas, lost her old sister, Hawa Komo to Ebola, at the Cape Community Primary School in Freetown, Sierra Leone on June 22, 2015. Photo © Dominic Chavez/World Bank

The West Africa Ebola crisis of 2014-15 killed more than 11,000 people, caused economic and social disruption in a massive scale, and left tens of thousands of children orphaned. In Sierra Leone, schools were closed for eight months, resulting in a lost year of learning. With the closure of schools and banning of public gatherings, Sierra Leoneans, having lived through years of civil war, knew the setbacks that lost educational opportunities would inflict on a young generation.  The government, working with donor partners, initiated a number of interventions to mitigate these losses.

To better understand the lessons for education from the Ebola crisis and recovery efforts, a team at the World Bank is conducting a post-Ebola needs assessment. The research is still underway, but here’s what we have learned so far from focus group discussions with students, parents, teachers, and school committee members in urban and rural areas:
 
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 math, 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. “We listened, my aunt was very strict (insisting we) finish our chores so that we could listen to the radio program,” recalled one junior secondary school student.
 
However, access to the program was limited by poor radio signal coverage in rural areas and a lack of radios and/or batteries, especially among poorer households. UNICEF distributed of 25,000 radios to communities, relieving this challenge in many areas. Another issue was timing conflicts between the radio program and farming and other household activities. Language and accents also posed comprehension problems, and not all students benefited from having an adult present to help explain the program content.
 
Community members’ confidence in health and safety measures was vital for children’s reenrollment in school. Sierra Leone schools reopened in April 2015, 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.
 
The government distributed thermometers, soap, Veronica buckets (handwashing stations), chlorine, and gloves, and trained teachers in the protocol for handling suspected Ebola cases. As time went by, and no new Ebola cases were reported in any school, the strategy proved effective: initial data from the 2015 school census show at least 1.8 million students enrolled across the country, comparable to pre-crisis levels.
 
 “We were not able to convince everybody… but as weeks went by, more kids returned to school and the situation began to stabilize,” said a school principal.
 
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).
 
Though further evaluation of the curriculum will be necessary, international evidence suggests that recalibrating the pace of instruction to children’s actual learning levels is an effective way of improving outcomes in low-performing educational settings.
 
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.
 
A girl in one of the focus groups captures both the stigma suffered by these new mothers and a determination to continue learning: “[People] ridicule us by saying that now we’re serious to go to school after chasing men when we had the opportunity to go to school, but I am happy to come here.”
 
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, for the most part, 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.
 
Find out more about the World Bank Group’s work on education on Twitter and Flipboard.
 
Read this feature story about the experiences of children going back to school after the Ebola outbreak.
 
Download  the World Bank Group Ebola response fact sheet (April 2016).
 

Comments

Submitted by Susan Durston,Trustee of Child to child on

Readers might also like to know of a complementary radio series in Sierra Leone, an innovation by Child to child, shortlisted as one of the most innovative education programmes in West Africa working in child health, education, and violence prevention by the Center for Education Innovations (CEI) and Center for Health Market Innovations (CHMI), in collaboration with the UBS Optimus Foundation.

The programme, Pikin to Pikin Tok (which means Child to Child Talk in the local language Krio) is made up of three different programmes – Story Time, Under the Mango Tree and Messages Through Music – each of which target different age ranges, and are intended to enhance children’s social, numeracy, literacy and life skills. Under the Mango Tree targets the older children and is designed to support them to develop critical life skills. This programme directly addresses the issues that have emerged in the wake of Ebola, including stigma and exclusion, disability, sexual violence and teenage pregnancy and helps children to critically think through how they might best deal with them. Hundreds of solar-powered and wind up radios have been distributed.

Listeners’ Groups guide the children in their discussion of the topics discussed by their peers on the radio. Children are encouraged to phone in after the radio broadcasts to express their views and opinions, and in line with the ethos to work in partnership with children, groups of children have been recruited and trained as ‘young journalists’. They have helped to identify stories, interview key stakeholders and record audio content. The radio team mixes this audio content into high quality programmes which are then broadcast by local radio station Radio Moa across Kailahun District. The voices and views of women and girls are consistently heard throughout the programmes on Pikin to Pikin Tok. Consequently, girls have increased their understanding of sexual abuse and learned how to keep themselves safer. Girls become more willing to speak out, demonstrating their newly acquired knowledge and outperforming boys in their levels of confidence.

For more information, go to: http://www.childtochild.org.uk/projects/pikin-to-pikin-tok-radio-programme/ . It was also the subject of a feature on it in a BBC World Service December broadcast of ‘Focus on Africa’

The programme utilized the substantial experience gained by Child to child on the ground in an early childhood education programme (Getting Ready for School) in Kailahun, at the heart of the Ebola crisis, which was forced to close because children had been meeting in groups. The project builds on the Child to Child concept of older children (Young facilitators) teaching/coaching younger children (Young Learners) which in turn, improves their health, knowledge and general well-being. More information on this can be gained from the Child to child website and through the case study currently being finalised by ODI for UNGEI under its initiative to showcase models of good practice in impact on girls’ education.

Submitted by Vamshi Krishna on

The Central Board of Secondary Education India (CBSE) has directed all its affiliated schools not to give any homework to students of classes 1 and 2. In a circular issued on September 12, the board asked the schools to ensure that class 1 and 2 students do not have to bring school bags.
CBSE had highlighted the adverse effects of heavy bags, especially on primary school children. There is a risk of spine injury as well as back pain, muscle pain, shoulder pain, fatigue and in extreme cases distortion of spinal cord or shoulders, CBSE director KK Choudhury said.
School Managements, teachers and parents were told to take measures to reduce weight of school bags. It has also suggested that text books from class 1 to VII must be light weighted and should not be hardbound. Thank You.

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