Stalemate over School Opening?

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There is no doubt that the re-opening of schools in the country will experience further delay as a result of what appears to be a show of power or supremacy between the Executive and Legislative Branches of the Liberian government on who decides a feasible time for the resumption of academic activities.

The Executive branch, through the Ministries of Education and Health, recently announced that schools across the country would resume activities on February 2, 2015.

This pronouncement came months after schools were ordered closed since August 2014 by President Sirleaf, as part the State of Emergency imposed at the time to mitigate the spread of the Ebola virus.  

But the MOE’s decision to reopen schools has been met with stiff resistance from the legislature and the public who maintain that the February 2 opening date was not feasible enough to allow parents, who have also been strained financially by the Ebola outbreak, to prepare their children for school.  A main point of contention for the Legislature, however, is that government has yet to put in place adequate safety measures at various schools across the country.

Last Thursday, the Joint Legislative Committee on Health and Education of the Liberian Senate however recommended that schools reopen on March 2, 2015, instead of the February 2, as was announced by authorities of the Ministry of Education.

The nine-member joint committee, chaired by Senators Peter Coleman for the Committee on Health, and Dallas A. V. Gueh for Education, recommended to the plenary that the reopening of schools for instructional purposes be delayed for one month to allow adequate preparation of the facilities and the delivery of all needed sanitation kits to the 5,181 schools within the Republic of Liberia.

During this period, the committee recommended that renovation of 500 schools targeted must commence and most likely made ready for reopening.

The committee, in its five-page deliberation, advised that the registration process remain ongoing to enable parents do the registration of their kids in a much more flexible manner; and further recommended that schools must not be allowed to have on their information sheets any fees attached to acquiring Ebola-related materials and violators to be sanctioned administratively by the Ministry of Education.

The Senate’s recommendation is the outcome of findings from a hearing conducted by the joint committee on January 27, 2015 on the level of preparedness of the two sectoral ministries towards the reopening of schools.

In their findings, the joint committee was reportedly informed by the Ministry of Health that it had concluded jointly with the Ministry of Education that a protocol for the reopening of schools is ready which, if followed, will ensure a safe and Ebola-free environment for the students, as well as instructional and administrative staff.

Responding to an inquiry by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf at the cabinet retreat a week ago in Julijuah, Bomi County, Education Minister Etmonia D. Tarpeh said that the Senators’ recommendation will not be considered.

She noted that from discussion held with the Lawmakers, it was agreed that there would be an extension, but March 2 was never mentioned and never concluded upon.

Minister Tarpeh told the Liberian leader, “Madam President, we did have a date that school will open, which is February 2, and we told them that we could not renege on that, and in any way we were not going to renege on that. But we had some discussion with them when we decided to make some extension to the date.

“And with all the discussions and everything they were doing,” the Minister continued, “we agreed that we could extend our registration of students up to the 13th of February and, on the 16th, schools will open.

“We agreed on that and they said they were going to discuss it again and later they were going to call us to come and meet with you to say what we have done.”

Minister Tarpeh said that unfortunately, the lawmakers did not do that. “When we thought that we had come to an understanding, they came with schools opening in March.”

“This was not what we agreed to and we are not going to do what you are saying, unless the President of this country changes. We are going to continue registration up to the 13th of February and class will start the 16th of February. And that’s where we are as far as we know,” she noted.

She disclosed that some renovation works are ongoing at some of the schools that have been earmarked. “We are also distributing the different kits for the Ebola preventative measures. We have started in Montserrado and we will be going to other places.”

President Sirleaf also noted that the Legislature should allow the Executive branch do its work as mandated by the Liberian constitution. “We have to do our job as the Executive branch of the government as mandated by the Constitution.”

She stressed, however, that the Executive branch knows that Feb 2 was a stretch and it was going to be difficult to achieve.

“So we have been discussing it, that decision rested and still rests with the Executive branch.  And so you have now said the 16th, and it is asked that before you make announcement please consult so we can work together,” the President told her lieutenant.

“It is when these announcements come prematurely on the basis of other people sentiments… that we will run risk of being confused to change and change and change.”

“So let us sit down now and look at that 16th again, please no more announcements, let us sit down and look at it and see whether it is realistic.  When that is done you should make that announcement and give the reasons why there is a delay. So that when it does open, its open fully ready to start the business of education and instruction,” President Sirleaf said.

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