The Coronavirus threatens the momentum of education in South Sudan

The school closure in South Sudan is threatening education outcomes and affecting children’s wellbeing.

Richard Ruati
Students at a school in Juba
UNICEF South Sudan/Gonzalez Farran
14 May 2020

Juba, South Sudan – It is just silence. The cacophony of children laughing, catching up with friends, friendly competitions and teachers trying to get their attentions is replaced with silence. The only sound coming from the many schoolyards is iron sheets rattling in gusts of wind. Hundreds of thousands of children are out of school across South Sudan due to the forced closure of schools as a preventive Coronavirus measure.

Emmanuel Liet, 17, is one of the many students affected. He is worried what will happen next. "At first, I thought the disease was thousands of miles away from us, but it's here now. Many children all over South Sudan and I are not sure of what will happen tomorrow. It has caused fear, depression, and we are unable to see our love ones."

If the closure of schools continues for months without alternative learning for the students, the most vulnerable children like Emmanuel will be less likely to complete their education, reducing their chances of future employment and therefore a better future.

"We may not complete tomorrow because we hear thousands of people are dying every day in big countries like the United States of America, Italy and China. If the same happens in South Sudan, it will impact negatively on our parents as some of the seniors are the breadwinners and sponsors our education," says Emmanuel with worry in his voice.

The outbreak of coronavirus threatens to reverse the educational progress in South Sudan where the rate of literacy is already low noting, only one third of the country can read and write.

A boy smiling
UNICEF South Sudan/de la Guardia
17-year-old Emmanuel Liet is one of many students in South Sudan who are missing out on learning because schools are closed.

The education systems had just started recovering from decades of conflict.

Closed schools can have a crippling impact on vulnerable children, especially girls, who are at higher risk of forced early marriage and pregnancy. Furthermore, prolonged closure of the schools could increase drop-out rates which will largely affect adolescent girls- devastating in a country where access to education for girls is already very limited.

Randa Wani, is one of the many girl students who are spending her days at home as schools are closed and the Government’s advice to stay physically separated from others to prevent COVID-19 infection.  "The prevention measures have disrupted my educational interaction and recreational activities with other students. We used to do our homework together, but not anymore”.

Randa was born into a big family which now consists of 16 children including nine girls and seven boys. She is the fourth last child in the family. Now that she spends all her days at home, she is more involved in domestic work and spends time with her younger sisters, who are 14, 12 and 9 years old- educating them about the Coronavirus prevention measures. “I teach my little sisters not to greet by handshakes, not to touch each other and they must wash hands whenever they come from outside. For me, coronavirus has taught me to wash my hands regularly and avoid crowded places.”   

As South Sudan continue to produce new cases of coronavirus, misinformation and rumours continue to spread, undermining the risk communication efforts put in place to prevent further spread of the virus.  "Misinformation by word of mouth and social media is causing fear and panic, we are even confused about what food to eat or not eat to equip our immune system to be strong against the virus”, says Randa.

UNICEF South Sudan/de la Guardia
Randa Wani is missing her friends now that she is home all day.

To address misinformation, Emmanuel cautions his fellow students. "We are not sure of which information is right or fake as young people; we must learn how to stay updated by getting reliable information on radio and correct the other students who might become victims of false information."

Unable to go to school and play outside is not hindering Randa and her small sisters from studying at home. "Even as we are feeling anxious and isolated from our schoolmates, we are creating time at home to study, but the challenge is; we cannot access the teachers for further guidance.

In March, the Government of South Sudan decided to close all schools, suspended    sporting, social, political and religious gatherings as a preventive measure against COVID-19. People are asked to restrict movements and a curfew is imposed. Staying more at home is an additional challenge for girls, with increased domestic and caring responsibilities, including cooking and cleaning. This means that Randa's learning opportunities at home are limited as opposed to being at school.

Randa is feeling isolated at home "My stay home has affected me in such a way that I miss my friends, interactions and going to church over the weekend.”

UNICEF calls on the Government and its partners in the education sector to work closely together to ease as much as possible the negative impact of the school closure on the wellbeing and learning of the children.

South Sudan's national Ministry of General Education and Instruction has announced a distance learning program for students like Randa and Emmanuel, which means students will learn through digital teaching over radio and television until the reopening of schools when the coronavirus will be under control.

However, this innovative distance learning program may not be feasible for Randa, Emmanuel and the majority of the students as they don't have access to electricity, radios and television. When the day of the final exams come, the learning gap will be visible unless additional measures are taken for continuation of learning or reopening of schools.