The president of the Better Future Foundation, Reverend Augustine Akoi, has called on the Liberian government to reopen all schools, from kindergarten to university, throughout the country.
Rev. Akoi questioned the wisdom of keeping entertainment centers, including video clubs, open while the schools remain closed. He argued, rightly, we believe, that creating awareness against the deadly Ebola virus can better be accomplished in educational institutions than anywhere else.
Clearly, entertainment centers, where people booze (drink intoxicating liquor) and video clubs, where they stand and rub against one another in tight spaces to watch football and movies, are places where the virus can spread faster than in schools.
Yes, most schools, especially government ones, are overcrowded, thanks to the student explosion that was created several years ago by GOL’s tuition-free primary education policy. However, just as Rev. Arkoi indicated, it is in the educational environment that awareness about health and other issues can better be communicated and more easily become part of the learning process.
BUT—and there are very big BUTs: The BIG question is, are the schools, colleges and universities ready to reopen in this Ebola-infested environment?
The first problem is, how will the students get to school—in overcrowded buses or taxies? And where are these? Each day students can be seen lining the sidewalks waiting frantically for transport.
Secondly, most of the classrooms, especially in government schools, are overcrowded, with insufficient or broken chairs, causing many students to sit on the dirty floor—another Ebola high risk.
Thirdly, and most dangerous of all, most schools have dysfunctional toilets, and outside urination is done on many school compounds. Remember, urine is an Ebola carrier.
There is, fourthly, the issue of hand washing chlorinated water buckets for say 1000 or more students in each school six days a week—six days since many students return to school on Saturdays for study classes. Can government afford the buckets and chlorinated water for all its students throughout the country?
Fifthly, is it realistic to have Liberia’s students in schools surrounded by garbage and clogged drainages? Can city councils and townships guarantee that the garbage dumps or heaps are removed at least on a twice-weekly basis, that drainages are daily? Can the Ministry of Health deploy its sanitation inspectors—if they have any—to ensure that people stop clogging the drainages with trash? We know why garbage dumps and clogged drainages are harmful to school surroundings, for the are always infested with some of the most dangerous disease-carrying creatures— mosquitoes, rats, roaches, worms, etc.
Sixthly, will there be a temperature screening system in place for the thousands of students arriving daily at say over 7000 schools from various communities around the country?
If the various government ministries and agencies have furloughed their non-essential staff to lessen the Ebola risk, is it realistic and safe to reopen schools with far higher populations?
The reopening of schools would admittedly be an opportunity for the Ministry of Education, school authorities, teachers and even more advanced students to participate actively in the awareness process, first by being tutored in all the anti-disease or virus procedures, such as hand washing; observing strict hygiene rules; and insisting, as never before, on cleanliness in the school building, yard and neighborhood.
But before schools can be reopened, all of the above issues have to be addressed, otherwise it would be indeed highly risky for our students to return to school.
What this means is that government and all operators of private schools, colleges and universities, have to address each of the issues raised, before they can even think of reopening their educational institutions.
These issues, admittedly, constitute a very serious headache for GOL and all other educational operators, especially in this era of “budget shortfall” and the stupendous financial challenges GOL and everyone of us face because of Ebola. But these issues must be addressed before anyone can think of reopening their doors to the hundreds of thousands of students hungry for learning.