Closed for Ebola then reopened – now Liberia’s schools are shut again

This classroom in city of Buchanan is empty again

Children in Liberia are getting used to being out of school again. 

Their classrooms were closed for six months at the height of the Ebola outbreak that killed more than 11,000 people in three countries.

But the schools reopened in February and more than one million students started to trickle back – lining up to have their temperatures taken and washing their hands in chlorine in the new post-Ebola era.

They had been told classes would be open for the next eight months to make up for lost time. However, the Liberian government changed its mind and the schools shut down again last week until September.

Liberian primary school children in Monrovia wait to wash their hands Picture: UNICEF/Irwin

Conference Harmon, a grade 11 student in the capital Monrovia, told the humanitarian news agency IRIN: “This is a serious nightmare. How can the government do this? Just imagine, I have paid my entire school fees [for the year] and now the government says schools should close. I am not happy about this.”

Education Minister George Werner had warned in June that the academic calendar would be reset to prepare for next year. He said keeping schools open carried “the risk that desired learning outcomes in future years [would be] lowered irrecoverably, to cater to the short-term learning deficit”.

But students, parents and teachers were angry at the move. Days after the announcement, protesting students lay down on the road and blocked a motorcade carrying President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Mr Werner has admitted that “education in our country is a mess”. He added: “In some places, the education system has collapsed but I am not willing to put off the hard decisions, to just sit at my desk and watch the problems become ever more entrenched.”

Children had been back at schools, like Slipway Primary in Monrovia Picture: UNICEF/Irwin

The government said all students – except those in grade 9 and 12 taking placement exams – will be eligible to be promoted to the following grade at the start of the next school year.

But there are concerns over doing this when some students have been back at school while others haven’t yet returned.

When the schools reopened in February, many had not had their textbooks delivered. The United Nations children’s agency UNICEF stepped in to supply 700,000 learning and teaching kits to 4460 schools – they included notebooks, pencils and school bags for students and lesson plans for teachers.

Liberia is spending $80 million to build 47 new schools – 27 of them already completed – train teachers, construct teachers’ quarters and science labs and on other education projects.