Children in Sierra Leone were cleared to return to school on Tuesday after a nine-month long absence due to the Ebola outbreak that killed more than 10,000 people in West Africa. Teachers and aid workers, however, said student attendance was low due to lingering fears of the disease.
More than 8,000 schools reopened for the country’s estimated 1.8 million students, whose education was interrupted by the health crisis. Sierra Leone’s government and the U.N.’s children’s agency, UNICEF, have promised to check temperatures regularly and promote hand washing to discourage the spread of Ebola in the schools.
“This marks a major step in the normalization of life in Sierra Leone,” said Roeland Monasch, UNICEF’s representative in Sierra Leone. “It is important that all children get into school including those who were out of school before the Ebola outbreak. Education for all is a key part of the recovery process for the country.”
Though few children returned to school in the capital Freetown, government workers and aid workers were optimistic that attendance would increase in the days ahead, according to Leslie Scott, national director for aid agency World Vision.
“The skepticism is based on fear of Ebola because people are not very confident of sending their children if schools are not well prepared,” he said.
At the Prince of Wales secondary school in the west of Freetown, hundreds of pupils showed up in a compound that medical charity Doctors Without Borders used as an Ebola care center just a few weeks before. The compound has been decontaminated but classrooms are still being prepared.
“Some of the kids are standing here (in the sun) because their classrooms are still being painted,” said school principal Rodney Coker, who added that the turnout was impressive.
By contrast, Emmanuel Caulker, principal of the Jaiama Secondary School in Kono district, said only 13 children showed up, compared to an expected 500, a turnout echoed by other schools.
“We have also not received our teaching and learning materials promised by the government,” Caulker told Reuters.
Sierra Leone's Ministry of Education, Science and Technology said it hopes that the year's academic curriculum can still be covered before the end of the school year. A small number of junior secondary schools have been open since late March for exams.
UNICEF and World Vision said they had trained teachers to support children affected by the virus. In all, more than 9,000 children were orphaned by Ebola in Sierra Leone.
UNICEF also facilitated the training of 9,000 teachers in Ebola prevention and safety guidelines, it said. The organization is supplying 24,300 hand-washing stations, enough for three in every school, as well as cleaning equipment to prepare school buildings.
While the number of new Ebola cases has dropped dramatically, health care workers say it is vital to avoid complacency to eradicate the disease.