School resumption irks people in Ebola-hit Liberia

MONROVIA – The government's recent decision to reopen schools in early February has drawn negative reactions from most Liberians, with many citing the ongoing threat of Ebola and economic hardship.

"The time for schools to open is too short," Benjamin Benson, a 28-year-old student at the University of Liberia, told The Anadolu Agency.

"Besides, Liberia is not yet Ebola-free," he noted.

In recent months, Ebola – a contagious disease for which there is no known treatment or cure – has killed 7,905 people, mostly in West Africa, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

In Liberia alone, the deadly virus has claimed a total of 3,423 lives.

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf announced earlier this week that schools would reopen on Feb. 2 after months of delay over the Ebola scare. 

According to Liberia's academic calendar, schools – including universities and vocational schools – open in September and close in June.

Had it not been for Ebola, schools would have opened as usual in September and by this time, the country would be four months into the academic year. 

But President Sirleaf announced on Aug. 5 of last year that schools would not open as scheduled. 

"It was because of Ebola that the government closed schools," noted Benson. "So how can the government talks about opening schools when the WHO and the Center for Disease Control have not declared Liberia Ebola-free?"

Allison Tomah, a 34-year-old registered nurse, agrees.

"Ebola fear made the government close schools and we have new cases coming from Cape Mount County [in western Liberia]," she told AA.

"So what happens to the school-going children in that region should school open next month?" Tomah asked.

She insists that, unlike adults, it would be extremely hard to have children abide by the necessary medical and behavioral guidelines to avoid the spread of Ebola.

"When you tell an adult 'don't shake hands or touch,' they can easy adhere, but not children," the certified nurse told AA.

Even with the government's announcement, many questions remain unanswered.

For one, it is not immediately clear what the government plans to do about the over 300 children who had lost their parents to Ebola.

Also, no plans have been announced to replace teachers and school administrators who have succumbed to the deadly virus.

-Economic hardship-

Many Liberians believe financial difficulties are a serious hindrance to the reopening of schools.

"We are happy to see our children back in school," Lawrence, a 52-year-old private teacher at the Christ the King Catholic School, told AA. "We are not happy to see them sit home for that long."

"But the time given by the government for the reopening of schools is not okay," he insisted. "Since Ebola closed the schools, I have not been taking my pay."

He used to earn a monthly salary of 10,000 Liberian dollars (roughly $122).

"I have five children, each of them is attending a different school and their school fees are almost 35,000 Liberian dollars per year," Lawrence lamented.

Being out of a job for six months since schools were closed, he wants the government to postpone the reopening of schools to March to allow him and his wife to prepare. 

"So for the government to announce this week that schools will open next month, it's unconvincing for us – we need time to raise money to prepare our children for school," he insisted.

Many people have already spent their yearly savings on Christmas and New Year celebrations.

"For me, I am not prepared to pay school fees now; we just came out of Christmas and New Year, and the season carried all the money," Abraham Ballah told AA.

James Gwee, vice principal for instruction at the J. J. Roberts School in Monrovia, for his part, welcomes the opening of schools.

But he believes the timetable set by the government will cause problems.

"Five days for a registration process is not enough; this will create problems for parents financially," he told AA.

The government announced that school registering will start on Jan. 19 and runs for only five days.

"Regularly, it takes between 20 and 25 days for registering both old and new students, but the five days are going to be an embarrassment for us and the parents," said Gwee.

"But if we maintain the five-day registration, we will not have more than 200 students," he noted.

The school official added that, because of Ebola, they had decided to reduce the number of students per class.

"We had the students sitting 45 per class, but because of Ebola, it will be dropped to 30, and it will be on a first-come-first-served basis," he told AA.

This, Gwee acknowledged, would prevent many parents from sending their children to school and reduce school enrollment and funds by more than 25 percent.

Gabriel Wulu, a 25-year-old unemployed man, wants the government to exempt families of tuition fees this year.

"Ebola has destroyed everything in our country, so let the government make the school year free for both private and public schools and subsides the schools," he told AA.

Gabriel argued that, if internal partners have helped his country combat the virus to the point where it is almost being eradicated, similar financial support should be sought by the government to carry out what he calls a "free school year."

"We have millions of dollars to fight Ebola; the same millions can be put into education," he insisted. "If the government cannot make the entire school year free, than maybe a half semester [could be] free of tuition."

Some schools have complained that they need more time to renovate their facilities and increase the sitting capacity for students, which cannot be done before Feb. 2.

"At the end of every school year, we renovate the school campus, but Ebola closed schools and there is no money to renovate the building before Feb. 2," George Natt, principal of the Susan A. Berry School, told AA.

"Does the government expect students to sit in schools in such conditions?" he asked. "The government needs to plan well."

Unaware of the challenges involved, many students, however, are excited about returning to school.

"I am happy; I want to go back to school," Gloria Fayiah, 7, told AA. "I miss my friends and teachers."

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