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As Ebola ebbs, Sierra Leone targets another kind of recovery: normalcy

The government has announced that public schools, which were shuttered last summer to curb the spread of the deadly virus, will reopen in March amid a declining number of new cases. Making up for a lost school year is the new battle.

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    UNspecial envoy on Ebola Dr. David Nabarro talks to health worker and Ebola survivor from Sierra Leone Mme. Rebecca Johnson before a special meeting on Ebola at the WHO headquarters in Geneva, Jan. 25, 2015. Sierra Leone has announced that public schools will reopen in late March.
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Cecilia Sesay spends a large part of her day riding on a motorbike taxi through the Sierra Leonean capital of Freetown to meet individually with her pre-school students. Starting at 8 each weekday morning, she teaches back-to-back lessons on reading and writing until 4 p.m.

Hundreds of teachers throughout the West African country have done the same, turning to one-on-one classes in students’ homes since the spread of the deadly Ebola virus forced the closure of schools last July.

“I am running all around despite the risk to help my pupils who have almost lost a greater part of the school year,” Ms. Sesay says.

But with a sharp drop in new Ebola cases, Sierra Leone has announced that schools will reopen on March 30, and focus has now turned toward the recovery process for children whose education has been set back at least half a year. The implementation of the government's new plan – which includes paying for school fees and continuous assessments – will be a key indicator of how well the country can rebound after Ebola.

“We are now entering the transition phase. Given the progress being made against the disease, we must take action to enable economic and social recovery,” President Ernest Bai Koroma said in a television address to the nation last month.

Of the three West African countries hit by the deadly virus last May, Sierra Leone suffered the worst, with more than 10,340 cases. President Koroma shuttered all education centers in a desperate attempt to curtail the spread of the highly infectious virus. 

But it is now seeing considerable progress, with confirmed ebola cases decreasing weekly from triple to double digits. Many districts that once had as many as 20 or more cases a day are now registering zero cases daily. US President Barack Obama announced Wednesday that he would be effectively ending the US military’s efforts against the Ebola outbreak

As a staff teacher at Blessing Children Center Primary School, a private pre-school west of Freetown, Sesay has personally seen the tragic effect of the closures on everyday life. Some 1.7 million students nationwide stopped receiving lessons as education buildings were turned into temporary holding and treatment centers.

Teachers and secondary school students alike were pulled into the effort to combat Ebols, working as contract tracers, burial team members, and assistants in treatment centers. So far, 78 teachers have died of the virus, the Sierra Leone Teachers Union reports.

Recovering a lost year

Despite the infectious nature of the virus, parents eager to help their children keep pace have welcomed Sesay in their homes at least three times a week.

While normal classroom settings were forbidden, there was no restriction on one-on-one teaching sessions, says Brima Turay, public relations officer of the education ministry.

Though Sesay also teaches children in her neighborhood for free at the end of the day, it was typically wealthier families who could take advantage ofthe kind of individual instruction she offered.

For the millions of children who do not have that advantage, the government has been running radio and television teaching programs to make up for the missed time, Mr. Turay says.

The programs are broadcast on more than 40 private radio stations across the country and on state-owned television. 

But now a full plan to reintegrate the students nationwide is being implemented, says Mohammed Sillah Sesay (no relation to Ms. Sesay), chairman of the Technical Committee on the Reopening of Schools. The plan includes 25 uninterrupted weeks of school until September, continuous assessment of students to verify promotion to the next level, and more broadcasts of teaching material on radio airwaves. The normal school year starts in September and ends in July.

Most important, the government will assume school fees for all students. Public education in Sierra Leone is not free, and averages 50,000 leones, or $12, per student each year.

Obstacles to education

Though the March date is set, the proposed reopening of schools could change based on the continued effort to stamp out the virus.

A high number of cases are still coming from the north and west of the country. Of a total of 76 confirmed cases registered in the first week of February, 46 were recorded in the north and 23 in the west, including Freetown, according to the National Ebola Response Center.

Even if school does reopen, July and August are rainy months in Sierra Leone and may affect the extended school year, Sesay says. It is common for students to miss school after heavy rainfall that goes on for two or more days each season.

Some students may not end up returning to school. Many who lost their parents have had to become primary breadwinners for their families, while others have been caught up by the free time.

“As a result of the long stay at home, some of the girls have become pregnant and some of them have been married off by their parents,” Sesay says.

To some teachers, like Tamba Lamin, a secondary school teacher in Freetown who also offers instruction, the chance to sit one-on-one with students is a rare opportunity due to overcrowding in many public schools.

“Some schools have over 70 pupils in a class,” he says.

Sesay, used to teaching a class of 23, is happy to keep teaching her six students during the day until the openings.

“The parents appreciate what I do for their children," she says, "and that has motivated me enough to keep going.”

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