Children lined up outside schools across Liberia on Monday, stopping to have their temperatures taken before attending classes for the first time since the rapid spread of the Ebola virus forced the government to close schools nationwide six months ago.
After weeks of preparation, Monday marked the first day since August that the Liberian government gave schools the go-ahead to open, a major test of the country's ability to move past the deadly outbreak that has ravaged Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone for more than a year. In some instances, schools that were retrofitted into Ebola treatment centers for the better part of 2014 have now been disinfected and transformed back into institutions with functioning classrooms.
"The Ebola outbreak has had a devastating effect on our health and education systems and our way of life in Liberia. We have managed to beat back the spread of the virus through collective efforts," Liberia's Minister of Education Etmonia D.Tarpeh said in a statement. "Reopening and getting our children back to school is an important aspect of ensuring children's education is not further interrupted."
The mood at a school in Monrovia was upbeat on Monday, according to Rukshan Ratnam, UNICEF's communications specialist in Liberia. Ratnam told VICE News that the atmosphere was one of people wanting to get their lives back to normal.
"It's great the schools are open, education is the foundation for kids," he said, emphasizing the importance of getting children back in the routine of attending class.
According to Ratman, the dozens of students he saw Monday in Monrovia complied with basic Ebola protocols of washing their hands and having their temperatures taken to both control and monitor potential infections. "That's something people have to uphold strongly," he said.
The schools reopened just as the worst Ebola outbreak in history appears to be burning out, at least in Liberia. The number of recent cases has spiked in Guinea and remains problematic in Sierra Leone, but infections in Liberia have stayed in single digits since the beginning of January, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Since the first person was diagnosed with Ebola in March of 2014, the hemorrhagic fever has infected more than 9,000 people in Liberia, leaving 3,900 dead. More than 23,000 people have been infected in all three countries.
The governments of Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone have worked to teach citizens how to avoid contracting Ebola, telling people to wash their hands regularly with chlorine. These protocols remain crucial to reaching the goal of zero cases — a target leaders of all three countries said they aim to reach by the end of March.
Liberia's Ministry of Education headed up the school re-openings, working with local NGOs and multinational groups to ensure that temperature taking and hand washing protocols were in place. Ratman said schools were under explicit instructions to place temperature checks at school entrances and to designate isolation areas. Buildings were required to have enough water for hand washing and faculty members were expected to have contact information for children in the event of illness.
There is also a push to ensure proper psychological support is available to children once they return to school. An estimated 10,000 children in the three Ebola outbreak countries have lost one or both of their parents, on top of those who have lost other family members or friends.
"We've been pushing more than just health protocols," Ratman said, explaining that this was an unprecedented crisis requiring a "different perspective to something where you have conflict."
As Ratman explained, today was not meant to be a mandatory first day of school, but instead the start of rolling openings throughout the country. Schools that could not meet the protocols were not allowed to open. More openings are expected over the next few weeks.
Jacob DeBee, co-founder of Monrovia's Candace Girls Education Foundation, spent the day traveling around the capital city to see what schools were open. He told VICE News that almost all of the Catholic schools were open, while notably fewer public schools appeared to be in session. DeBee said he saw hand washing stations at the schools that were open, and similar to Ratman, noticed a positive energy among students.
"[Children] have been so down," he said, noting that at this point in the school year kids would not typically be thrilled about sitting in a classroom. "They're so excited about it, they want to go to school."
According to DeBee however, many LIberians are not happy with how the government has communicated with parents. He said there was confusion regarding when first day of school was supposed to be. Outside of the capital city, reports from the ground seemed less positive. Members from the local youth organization Yotan told VICE News that many schools in rural Lofa County were not ready to open. Lofa borders Guinea and was the site of the first Ebola case in March of 2014.
Yotan's founder, Donnish PeWee, reported that very few schools in Lofa had received the Ebola prevention supplies that were supposed to be delivered. He said, for example, in the town of Voinjama only two of several schools — public and private — had received the materials. In a statement Monday, however, UNICEF said it distributed infection prevention kits to 4,000 schools in all 98 districts of Liberia.
"Many of the principals that we engaged during the morning hours… expressed dissatisfaction about the manner in which government has handled the reopening of schools," PeWee said. "Many complained on the lack of instructional materials that would enable them [to] carry out teaching activities."
Regardless of the number of schools that actually opened on Monday — accurate figures are not expected for a few days — multiple sources told VICE News that fear was a common theme among parents. In some cases, the concerns caused them to keep their children at home while they waited a few weeks to monitor progress. DeBee said he observed lower attendance rates in elementary schools.
DeBee is also working to get orphans enrolled in schools. If a child has lost both parents or is staying in an orphanage due to the Ebola outbreak, his organization must track down a family member to get permission for the student to attend class.
While the task of getting the country's schools back on track is unprecedented, Liberia experienced low attendance rates long before the 2014 outbreak. According to the World Bank figures from 2011, only 41 percent of children were enrolled in primary school. Ratman attributed this partly to affordability and accessibility, among other factors.
To address this problem going forward, UNICEF has decided to continue broadcasting the educational radio programs that were aired during the crisis when schools were closed.
Ratman said it's not the perfect solution, but it at least helps simulate the daily routine of going to class.
"We're trying to address this little by little and sort of chip away at [the problem]," he said. "But it's not going to happen overnight."
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