Ebola Today Could Mean Illiteracy Tomorrow In West Africa

Nov 10, 2014
Originally published on November 10, 2014 10:05 am

Ebola is threatening to reverse years of educational progress in West Africa. The virus has kept school closed for months in a part of the world where literacy rates are low and school systems are only now recovering from years of civil war.

In Liberia, many children have been put to work while schools are closed, and Ebola is hurting the economy, says Laurent Duvillier, a communication specialist at UNICEF. The fear now, he says, is that many of these children will never return to school.

The risk is especially high for girls, who until recently received much less schooling than boys, Duvillier says. "Families may be tempted to keep the eldest girl at home to help them or to wash clothes for the neighbors," he says. "We don't want those girls to drop out of school because of Ebola."

The school closures have been a challenge even for families with the resources to supervise and educate their children on their own.

Linda Barrolle-Saygbe, who works for the Liberian Ministry of Justice, wanted to hire a tutor to work with her two daughters and other children who live in her compound about an hour from Monrovia. She abandoned the idea because of a government ban on gatherings of people — and because of her own fears that the classes might put her daughters at risk of getting Ebola.

Instead, Barrolle-Saygbe and her husband are having the girls study for two hours a day. "They don't go out," she says. "The only place we go is church."

"It's very sad," says Barrolle-Saygbe's daughter Sharon, who is 18 and would have been a high school senior this year. The school closures will delay her plans to go to college and study information technology, she says.

Sharon's younger sister Issabelle, who is 12 and wants to be a journalist, says she misses her teachers and friends and "having fun."

Closing schools was probably necessary to stop the spread of Ebola, Barrolle-Saygbe says. But she worries now that her daughters could lose an entire year of education. "The time is too long. And if they are not doing anything, they will fall way, way back," she says.

Children from less affluent families face much more serious risks, Duvillier says. "The kids play everywhere," he says. "We don't know where they go. They're roaming, and actually it's increasing the risk [of Ebola] because we never know if they may enter the home and not wash their hands."

The longer schools in West Africa remain closed, the greater the risk that kids will drop out. But schools can't reopen until they are sure students will be safe from Ebola, Duvillier says. That means training teachers how to prevent infections and installing hand-washing stations at the entrance of every school. Both of those simple requirements represent "a very big logistical challenge," Duvillier says, and could take weeks or months.

During Liberia's civil war, which ended in 2003, some children missed years of school. And literacy rates plummeted. The challenge now is to make sure Ebola does not have a similar effect, Duvillier says.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In West Africa, millions of children have been unable to attend schools for months because of Ebola. It's a part of the world where literacy rates are low and educational systems are still recovering from years of conflict. The fear now is that many children, especially girls, will never go back to school. NPR's Jon Hamilton spent time with a family in Liberia whose dreams have been put on hold.

JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: The Saygbe family lives in a tidy, single-story house about an hour's drive from Monrovia.

LINDA BARROLLE-SAYGBE: OK, come in. This is my little home.

HAMILTON: Linda Barrolle-Saygbe works for the Ministry of Justice. Her husband is a computer forensic investigator.

L. BARROLLE-SAYGBE: I have my husband, me, my mom, my two girls and my boy Shalom.

HAMILTON: Shalom is still a baby. The girls are 12 and 18. They were attending a private school in Monrovia before Ebola arrived. Barrolle-Saygbe says she had been looking forward to her older daughter Sharon's senior year.

L. BARROLLE-SAYGBE: And I was so excited to see my girl in her senior outfit. And now that's not happening 'til March, who knows?

HAMILTON: March is when some government officials say schools might reopen. In the meantime, Barrolle-Saygbe is keeping her daughters at home.

L. BARROLLE-SAYGBE: They don't go out. They home. The only place we go is church.

HAMILTON: Barrolle-Saygbe says her daughters study for two hours each afternoon. The rest of the time they don't have much to do.

L. BARROLLE-SAYGBE: They're bored, you know, they're bored because they miss their friends and stuff like that. Well, every day here is only mommy, daddy, grandmom, you know, (laughter) nothing exciting.

HAMILTON: Issabelle, who wants to be a journalist, says she misses her teachers. Sharon, who plans to studies information technology, says life without school is sad.

SHARON BARROLLE-SAYGBE: Very sad for me.

HAMILTON: Why?

S. BARROLLE-SAYGBE: I miss the fun (laughter) of having class.

HAMILTON: Barrolle-Saygbe says she was in favor of closing schools to prevent the spread of Ebola, but now she worries that her daughters could lose an entire year of education.

L. BARROLLE-SAYGBE: The time is too long and if they are not doing anything, they will fall way, way back. And you know children, you got to keep them like this.

HAMILTON: The Saygbe family represents one end of the spectrum in Liberia - educated parents with good jobs who keep a close watch on their children. At the other end are families in which parents can't read or write and have no choice but to leave their kids unattended during the day. Laurent Duvillier of UNICEF says keeping these children out of school probably isn't protecting them from Ebola.

LAURENT DUVILLIER: The kids play everywhere. We don't know where they go. They're roaming, and, actually, it's increasing the risk because we never know if they may enter the home and not wash their hands beforehand.

HAMILTON: Many children have gone to work while schools are closed and Ebola is hurting the economy. Duvillier worries that families will decide to keep them working when schools reopen. He's especially worried about what families will do with girls who, until recently, received much less schooling than boys.

DUVILLIER: They may be tempted to keep the eldest girl at home to help them or to wash clothes for the neighbors. And that's what you don't want. We don't want those girls to drop out of school because of Ebola.

HAMILTON: Duvillier says the longer schools remain closed the greater the risk that kids will drop out, but schools can't reopen until they are sure students will be safe from Ebola. He says that means taking measures like showing teachers how to prevent infections and installing handwashing stations at the entrance of every school.

DUVILLIER: Even that, logistically speaking, to ensure that every school across the country will have that ready for the opening is a very big challenge.

HAMILTON: During Liberia's civil war, which ended in 2003, some children missed years of school and literacy rates plummeted. Liberian officials say they're trying to make sure Ebola doesn't have a similar effect. Jon Hamilton, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.