Arriving at Freetown-Lungi International Airport (FNA), in Sierra Leone this past June you would not think that the small, coastal West African nation was in the midst of a health crisis. Life was business as usual, with women working at food carts selling ripe plantains, grilled tilapia, and couscous to those awaiting the ferry to Freetown. There was the constant and familiar buzz of people talking, this time about upcoming “fast month” (Ramadan) and the rainy season. However, life was quickly changing, as the number of individuals becoming infected with Ebola virus began to increase steadily.
Unsurprisingly, as the international community watched the crisis unfold, the right to education for all children—a fundamental human right protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the Declaration of the Rights of the Child (1959), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966), and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989)—was not at the forefront of most emergency relief conversations and strategies. Education is generally an underfunded area of government spending to begin with and education during emergencies receives even less funding.
The International Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE), maintains that support and funding for education during an emergency is frequently neglected in favor of other areas of humanitarian assistance, such as health and sanitation. In Sierra Leone, this trend was no expectation. As the months ensued, government and private schools in Sierra Leone, such as the Beckyln Elementary School in Freetown, have not reopened for the 2014-2015 academic year. Currently school-age children in Sierra Leone have missed at least 4 month of schooling due to the outbreak of the Ebola virus.
The decision to keep schools closed was viewed as a way to protect children from exposure to the Ebola virus. However, this seemingly well intentioned response is not without significant consequences.
A year of missed schooling has devastating effects on future student enrollment and retention rates, particularly for at-risk students. Studies by UNICEF, Plan International and the Human Rights Watch, all argue that there is an increased incidence of early marriage, pregnancy, and sexual exploitation among girls who are not enrolled in and attending school. Moreover, there is an increased likelihood for children becoming at risk of economic exploitation. The important role of schools on the trajectory of children’s lives cannot be understated. Not only do quality schools support the development of important life skills, such as literacy and numeracy, but they also function as a place where important information related to health and safety are communicated.
Children are among the most severely affected victims in emergencies, and in Sierra Leone during the Ebola epidemic, this is no exception. Today schools are closed with nothing more than promises for a March reopening. As Sierra Leone enters its eighth month since its first confirmed case of Ebola, there is a need for a more integrated and strategic response that addresses the right to education for the 2 million children whose lives and education are currently on hold. In addition to developing concrete plans to re-open safe schools, plans to support student re-enrollment and make-up missed instruction must be developed.
Currently there are minimal provisions for teaching and learning materials provided by the government to parents to support them in homeschooling their children during the extended school closure. What does exist is an innovative radio show that airs six days a week to provide audio instructional lessons. However the actual effectiveness and impact of the show on students learning outcomes has not been evaluated. Moreover the reliance on one mode of instructional delivery contradicts best practice for teaching, learning, and meeting the needs of diverse learners. The need to address the educational needs of children in Sierra Leone cannot wait. Children missing school for an extended period of time places years of educational progress in Sierra Leone at risk.
The reopening safe schools must be prioritized as part of the immediate Ebola response in Sierra Leone. However, the national government cannot do it alone; we must urge humanitarian and development organizations to expand their Ebola-related planning to address student learning and access to education, because prolonged interrupted schooling will place the most vulnerable children in Sierra Leone at even greater risk.
Post By Aminata Jalloh
Aminata is a teacher, writer and an education consultant. She received her Master’s in Educational Planning, Economics and International Development from the University of London, Institute of Education. She has an extensive background in teaching reading to young children and curriculum design. Her professional experience spans: Ghana, India, Brazil, Sierra Leone, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States. Catch her on twitter @AminaJalloh