Why education must be part of the emergency response to Ebola in Liberia

By Richlue O. Burphy, an A World at School Global Youth Ambassador

During this time of national emergency in Liberia, I am particularly interested in the education of our children. The education sector in Liberia was already facing numerous challenges before the outbreak of Ebola. Now that the system has been shut down, I am very worried about its improvement.

In the wake of this menacing virus, a national state of emergency was declared all over Liberia by Her Excellency the President Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who also doubles as the head of the National Task Force Against Ebola.

Ebola has caused a lot of things in Liberia to come to a standstill and I can’t imagine how long this is going to last. With our Liberian nature, I just can’t determine how long we as a people can continue to live like this. All sectors of the society have been hard hit, with many seeing the health sector as the hardest hit. 

But I think differently. Education empowers us to think critically and act logically and rationally. I don’t think it should be compromised for anything. In a nation that is conscious about its development and citizens’ advancement, education should be highly prioritised.

There will be no development if the people’s minds are not developed and trained. Mama would always say to me: “Use your head.” When I was a kid, she said that when she wanted results from me.

I understand the closure of schools during thesed trouble times. At least for schools with younger children. Children need a lot of supervision for their protection during these times. But adults should be able to take care of themselves at schools – particularly the universities.

If we can go to work every day during the week and stay safe, why can’t we as adults go to school at the university level? Are most of the working adults not in these same schools? Are we not the same adults going to churches, mosques and our various places of worship? 

I understand it is to reduce and restrict gatherings and to reduce crowds. But can we compare the number of people in some of our places of worship at a time to the number of students in a single class at the universities? Can we compare the number of people in some of our communities meetings and other meetings and gatherings to the students during a single lecture at the university?

Are there not some other measures our educationalists at the helm of affairs at the national level could put in place to ensure that the nation’s human resources still be developed? Don’t we have experts in emergency education strategies to do some mappings for the system? For how long will our minds and that of our children be left untapped? 

I believe education is critical to all. We think that people should learn when things are normal. We develop education operations and barely include provisions for emergencies.

Even during emergencies such ias Ebola, we don’t see education as a necessary intervention in emergency response. All the humanitarian donations and reliefs have so far being in terms of food, water and sanitation and healthcare.

How many organisations are bringing in education materials as relief? Since we don’t want children going to schools now, can we get them things to be reading and learning at home? Can we make our libraries and reading rooms accessible to the public?

It is clear that education cannot wait, and should not wait, for “normal days” to return. The failure to give it high priority in humanitarian response could render entire generations uneducated, disadvantaged and unable to contribute to their society’s recovery.

During times like these, we need more education and education initiatives. The messages on the prevention of Ebola can be given out in the right way – providing physical, psychosocial and intellectual protection, which can be life-sustaining and life-saving during these times. 

If the schools are not reopened soon, one approach I would suggest is the community-level approach. Children can be gathered in small groups in the communities to be taught. It could be on front or back porches, under trees, in hallways or whatever space is available and usable. Preventive health education can even be the major lessons.

Parents, we don’t have to wait for government to say teach your child at home before we do. This is something I started already and I know that others are doing same. After work when I get home, I make sure to teach my children something before they sleep. Even if it’s for just an hour, they will learn. And it is helping. These activities can help children not to forget too much of what they already know. 

Some parents who are not working during these times can even take initiatives to volunteer as teachers in the communities. All you need to do is apply the preventative measures to keep yourself and the children safe. Though I taught for some years, I know that teaching children is a challenge and many think they do not have the grace for it. But one thing I can say for sure from my experiences is that teaching children is fun.