Education stakeholders decry this as a key impact of Schools being shutdown amid COVID-19
Education Minister, Professor Ansu Sonii, along with other stakeholders, has expressed distressing emotions over the impact of the Coronavirus on students across the country.
Sharing what could be considered a heartfelt concern at a ceremony marking the signing of a three-way memorandum of understanding on youth employability, Minister Sonii, upon mounting the podium for a statement, decried “The severe impact” of the coronavirus pandemic on the country’s academic year. He noted that students’ prolonged stay out of school has created several negative factors, especially for girls.
Making specific reference to a high school he had recently visited, Minister Sonii met five 12th grade students who have each become pregnant. “The situation at the unnamed school in Paynesville City clearly indicates that the longer students stay out of school, the higher the risk that a significant number of them may drop out,” he said.
“I’m worried about our students, especially our girls. A huge number of them are now pregnant due to the long stay at home as a result of the lockdown,” the Minister said.
He laid emphasis on senior students — many of whom are now taking the West African Secondary School Certificate Exams (WASSCE). The seniors were ordered back to school over a month ago after schools were shut for nearly four months.
Now, Minister Sonii is worried that with some of the girls in the senior class pregnant, the likelihood that they will ever return to complete their secondary school sojourn is highly unlikely.
Minister Sonii added that he has been informed by reliable sources that several male students have trooped to the southeastern region of the country to do artisanal mining, expressing concern that they, too, might not return to the classroom any time soon.
He said the Ministry of Education was weighing in on the risk of re-opening schools amid the COVID-19 crisis in the country, versus the risk of students staying out of school for too long –which may cause more dropouts, causing “Burden for the society.”
This worrying situation is not only unique to Liberia. A report released by Plan International a few months ago indicated that COVID-19 puts girls at risk of unplanned pregnancies, violence, and missing out on school. According to the report, around 743 million girls were out of school due to the pandemic, and many may never return.
“With schools shut down around the world to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus, girls are missing out on learning opportunities and are more likely to experience violence and abuse at home, unplanned pregnancies, child marriage, and economic hardship,” said the report, titled, “Living Under Lock-down”.
However, the disclosure made by Minister Sonii at the signing of the MOU is just the tip of the iceberg.
An investigation by the Daily Observer unveils that dozens of school-going girls were impregnated while school was closed due to the pandemic.
Some of the schools visited through this investigation include St. Kizito Catholic High School in Paynesville, where more than five students are believed to be pregnant. At the St. Margaret School in Gardnersville, three students are recorded pregnant, while the Royal Christian School and the St. Francis High School in Jacob Town have also both recorded pregnant senior students.
“Some of the students came back pregnant and we cannot deny them because we think it is not squarely their fault,” said an instructor at St. Kizito, who asked not to be named. “Secondly, the students do not have much time [left] in school, but only their WASSCE – and for this, we cannot deny them entering classes.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted every aspect of our lives negatively; so, we just have to play a blind eye to those students. These are all effects of the health crisis and we must also understand,” the instructor continued, adding that, “When successful in their WASSCE, this will just be double degrees for our pregnant seniors.”
At the St. Margaret School, students who have recently become pregnant were initially denied resuming classes, but intervention on the part of their parents saw them allowed to return to school.
Many of the students declined to speak about their condition. When contacted, one of them said in a sarcastic tone: “I do not want to talk because I do not have anything to say. Go and ask the people who told you that I am pregnant. They know more about me.”
In June this year, UNESCO predicted that, of all students, girls would be the worst hit by COVID-19 – suggesting that the situation would likely increase the number of female students dropping out of school and further widening the gender gap in education.
“The global scale and speed of the current educational disruption is unparalleled, and disadvantaged children are the worst-hit by the emergency measures,” said UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay in a release in early March this year.
Stefania Giannini, UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Education, said in an interview with Press Trust of India (PTI), the premier Indian news agency, in April that shutting down of schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic comes with a warning of “potential for increased drop-out rates which will disproportionately affect adolescent girls, further entrench gender gaps in education and lead to increased risk of sexual exploitation, early pregnancy and early and forced marriage”.
Out of the total population of students enrolled in educational institutions globally, UNESCO estimates that over 89 percent are currently out of school because of the pandemic.
In Liberia, the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown is even more severe in rural communities, where early marriage of girls is also an entrenched problem. In early August, local media in Maryland County reported that five pregnant students were denied entry into classes after the MOE called for the resumption of academic activities for 12th graders.
In Nimba County, residents of Old Yourpea in Kparblee District were pushing for the resumption of classes to avert the risk of more female students getting pregnant. An Instructor of the SK Doe Memorial Junior High School, Jefferson Kweh, said: “Our girls are the most at risk during this closure of school. Most of them may not come back and it is worrisome.”
Mr. Kweh noted that students can be preoccupied with their lessons when in school, and being out of school renders them less busy “Thereby indulging themselves in some unwholesome acts.”