SEATTLE, Washington — Between 2014 and 2015, the Ebola virus swept across Western Africa, killing more than 11,000 people. For Liberia, surviving such a blow to the country’s health was only the first hurdle to overcome. The virus’s impact on Liberia’s education system has been difficult to repair. By partnering with organizations such as UNICEF, the Global Partnership for Education, and the Ebola Restoration and Recovery Fund, education in Liberia after Ebola is steadily improving.
During the Outbreak
More than 37 percent of Ebola cases in Western Africa occurred in Liberia. As Ebola is highly contagious, Liberia closed all schools across the country in an effort to keep the virus from spreading further. While this was a necessary step, education essentially came to a stop in Liberia for six months or more, depending on the area. During the months that Liberian children were out of the classroom, students had to rely on radio programs to continue their education.
While these programs were considered the most viable option in an extreme situation, several issues with the radio system began to come to light. Unlike in a classroom setting, students were unable to ask questions about the coursework. Additionally, the radio programs did not differentiate between educational levels, meaning that an upper-level student may be listening to a program far below their capabilities while a younger student may have trouble following a more advanced program.
Recovering from the Outbreak
Education in Liberia after Ebola began to improve in February 2015 when most schools began reopening procedures. The Liberian government worked closely with the Global Partnership for Education, the World Health Organization and the Center for Disease Control to determine the earliest date that students could safely return. Many rumors circulated about the safety of classrooms after Ebola.
Only a few classrooms in Liberia were used as Ebola Treatment Units, yet families across the country remained hesitant to send their children back to school. In an effort to prove that students were in a safe environment at school, Liberia partnered with UNICEF to provide take-home hygiene kits and psychosocial counseling sessions with parents, students and personnel to put families at ease. These sessions proved successful, and most families felt comfortable with the new health protocols in place.
The World Bank Group also aided in the recovery of Liberia’s education system by providing more than 15,000 teachers with curriculum refresher training and textbooks to more than 590,000 students, which limited the number of potentially contaminated surfaces returning to the classrooms.
The Challenges for Educators After Ebola
Education in Liberia after Ebola meant that teachers faced greater challenges than simply educating students. Around 4,200 Liberian children experienced the loss one or both parents to the Ebola virus, causing significant mental and emotional trauma. Teachers across the country were tasked with comforting traumatized students while also teaching a condensed curriculum.
The Ebola Restoration and Recovery Trust Fund (ERRTF) sought to aid Liberian classrooms with a helpful approach to the trauma that thousands of students had experienced. Through the Comfort for Kids program, the ERRTF provided “My Ebola Story” workbooks that helped both students and teachers have healthier conversations about the effects of Ebola in their community. Around 10,000 children received the workbooks, and most teachers reported positive changes in their students’ interactions.
Though Liberia has been declared free of Ebola for the last year, the virus still makes appearances. Years after the deadliest Ebola outbreak in decades, many epidemiologists are confident that another outbreak is likely to occur due to the recent changes in land use and the need for logging the forests. Programs need to be set in motion to provide better education and detection methods in high-risk areas.
In response to the challenges faced during the last outbreak, education in Liberia after Ebola is a drastically different system. Numerous safety precautions have been implemented, classrooms are better equipped with hygiene products and there is a stronger focus on health education in schools. With the help of the organizations that partnered with Liberia, there is hope that, should there be a new outbreak, the education system and Liberia as a whole, might be more prepared to handle the virus.