FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (April 14, 2015) — Some 1.7 million children return to school in Sierra Leone Tuesday after a nine-month hiatus during the Ebola epidemic, but some may be burdened by more than books and backpacks as they head to class.
“Most children are very excited about going back to school after being idle at home for so long, but many are also fearful and worried,” says Alison Schafer, World Vision’s mental health and psychosocial support specialist, who is based in Freetown. “Although they may be concerned about the possibility of catching Ebola in the classroom, they are more worried that they’ve forgotten everything they’ve learned. They’re anxious about whether they can ever catch up.”
Children in Sierra Leone have been directly or indirectly affected by the Ebola crisis, says Schafer. The government estimates that 8,617 children (PDF) lost one or both parents to the virus, and 1,450 children contracted the disease themselves. However, all school-aged children have born the brunt of Ebola, after sacrificing almost a year of education during school closures.
“Re-opening schools is not just a one-off event. It’s going to be a months-long journey,” notes Schafer. “We need to create a supportive learning environment where children feel safe to express their emotions about what they have endured.”
The task of resettling a nation of children whose lives have been so profoundly disrupted is daunting. Equipping teachers with psychosocial first aid skills is key to helping students get back to their books, says Schafer. She co-wrote a training manual (containing material from this handbook) being used nationally by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology to help teachers recognize and deal with signs of stress in children, including poor focus, irritability, and hyperactivity. World Vision has trained more than 1,000 teachers in psychosocial support skills.
Some government critics warn that not all schools will be ready to open Tuesday. During the height of the Ebola crisis, many schools were used as treatment centers, and now need to be disinfected and refurbished.
“We are cautiously optimistic that most schools will open their doors – this is a critical first step on the road to post-Ebola recovery,” says Leslie Scott, Director of World Vision in Sierra Leone. “But there is still a tremendous amount to be done to ensure that classrooms are safe and supportive for our children.”
To help students get set for class, World Vision is helping to provide books, uniforms and school supplies to the 58,000 children in its sponsorship program. The government has waived school fees for all children for the next two years to encourage enrollment.
Schafer is concerned that some pupils may never return to school.
“Many children began working — selling firewood and jobs like that — while out of school this past year,” she said. “It will be hard for struggling families to sacrifice even that small income and send their children back, especially girls. We must advocate that all children have the opportunity to return to school.”
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About World Vision:
World Vision is a Christian humanitarian organization conducting relief, development, and advocacy activities in its work with children, families, and their communities in nearly 100 countries to help them reach their full potential by tackling the causes of poverty and injustice. World Vision serves all people regardless of religion, race, ethnicity, or gender. For more information, please visit www.WorldVision.org/media-center/ or on Twitter @WorldVisionUSA.
- 1.7 million children in Ebola-plagued Sierra Leone are finally returning to school today, after a nine-month hiatus.
- Students need practical care to deal with stress, lost confidence.