At a glance: Liberia

Measures to safeguard schools in Ebola-hit Liberia point to need for continued vigilance

By Tim Irwin

When students returned to school in Liberia, they learned about the importance of good hygiene. Now they’re teaching others.

MONROVIA, Liberia, 30 March 2015 – Classes at the Slipway primary school in central Monrovia resumed only a few weeks ago, but the new morning drill is already well established.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF Liberia/2015
In Liberia, schools were closed for six months because of the Ebola epidemic. Now that class is back in session, students are following a new set of protocols to stave off infection with the deadly disease. Here, children queue to wash their hands before morning devotionals.

“We rub our palms together 10 times, wash between our fingers five times, around our thumbs five times and then scrub around our nails,” says Grace Winnie, who is in Grade 4.

Back to school, back to routine

Schools across Liberia reopened on 16 February, following a six-month closure because of the Ebola crisis. UNICEF has helped put in place new procedures aimed at minimizing the risk of infection.

The first students begin arriving at Slipway just after 7 a.m. Four plastic water cisterns are set up on tables at the school’s entrance, along with bars of soap. There are more handwashing stations outside of the girls’ and boys’ toilets.

Grace and the other students wash their hands, after which have their temperature taken, before gathering in the school’s central courtyard. A girl is asked to stand aside, when she records a higher than average temperature. After a short rest, another reading is taken with one of the infrared thermometers that are used to avoid bodily contact. The result is normal.

At the Slipway school, the practices are now as much a part of the school day as morning prayer, which involves call and response, singing and hand-clapping and raising the Liberian flag – and ends with a crisp salute. The two activities are conducted with equal levels of enthusiasm and commitment. 

“Go and tell others”

UNICEF and partners aim to train 15,000 teachers and other school staff across Liberia in administering the new protocols, including how to spot and respond to a child exhibiting symptoms of Ebola infection.

Teachers and administrators at the school are urging the children to take what they’ve learned and pass it on to their families and communities.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF Liberia/2015
The lessons in preventing Ebola that the children are learning in schools are lessons they bring to their homes and their communities. It is critical that communities remain vigilant until the scourge is wiped out entirely.

“I say to the children, we have this new way of washing hands,” says Jema Moore, Slipway’s vice principal. “Now go and tell others. During devotions, a child will often say ‘I told my sister, I told my auntie’.”

Sadou Jaroh, 13, looks somewhat sheepish when asked if the new routine took a bit of getting used to, but says it’s now a habit that requires no reminders. He, too, has passed on the benefits of soap and water to his friends and family, he says.

None of Slipway’s students, teachers or administrators has died of Ebola infection, but the school has not been untouched by the epidemic. Two students were infected, following the death of their father. They survived the illness and have returned to class, with the other children.

A community approach

“The protocols were designed as a community solution that would allow children to return to school,” says Bernard Batidzirai, UNICEF’s Education Specialist in Monrovia. “Before they were introduced, we worked with parent-teacher associations, principals, administrators and district education officials to make sure they understood that the procedures were there to protect their children and that the community also had a role to play, by not sending sick children to school, for instance.”

After weeks without a new infection being reported in Liberia, a confirmed case of Ebola was announced on 20 March, underscoring the need for continued vigilance and action until there are no incidences of the virus in any of the three most affected West African countries. Posters pasted outside the classrooms at Slipway public school earlier in the epidemic remain relevant today: “Ebola is still here!!”, they announce. “Wash your hands with soap and clean water.”


 

 

UNICEF Photography: Life after coming home

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