On November 7th 2015, thousands of people took to the streets of Freetown, Sierra Leone in celebration – the country had been officially declared free of Ebola.
Since the first case hit Sierra Leone in May 2014, almost 4,000 people have lost their lives to the deadly virus. In addressing this enormous health crisis, response efforts initially focused on containing the virus and saving lives. But the impact on education was also devastating and will have profound and long-term consequences.
The Ebola virus wreaked havoc on the country, including its education system
During the outbreak, 1.8 million children were deprived of their regular schooling for at least nine months, as learning institutions were shut down in all 14 districts of the country. More than 8,600 children lost one or both parents due to the disease, leaving many children obliged to find work to support themselves and their families.
The virus claimed the lives of teachers and staff among the education community, and schools were used as isolation centers. There were increased drop-out rates due to illness and stigmatization of victims and their families, and there was also a sharp spike in teenage pregnancies.
Civil society steps up to help
Fortunately, from the outset of the crisis, the national education coalition Education for All Sierra Leone (EFA-SL) was able to take advantage of its open channels of dialogue with the government to help deliver an inclusive, participatory and equitable response to education in a state of emergency.
With its strong membership in all districts of the country, including a large variety of civil society organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), EFA-SL recognizes that education is a critical component of any humanitarian response.
Supported by the Global Campaign for Education’s Civil Society Education Fund, it advocates for “access, quality and completion in education for all’. It has sought to cultivate public understanding of the importance of education ever since its inception in 1999, including in the aftermath of the 11-year civil war (1991-2002).The Civil Society Education Fund is financed by the Global Partnership for Education.
As such, it is acutely aware of the key role of education in rebuilding societies in an emergency context, and the importance of citizen engagement in education sector policy and planning processes.
Coordinating the response from all actors
To address the crisis using coordinated efforts across the sector, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MEST) established an Ebola Task Force Team as well as various government-led sub-committees like the Education Technical Committee and the School Reopening Working Committee.
By participating in these new fora, in addition to well-established ones such as the local education group (known as Education Development Partners Forum), the coalition had the opportunity to influence and steer the national response.
Rapid interventions to keep children learning from home
In consultation with members and partners, the coalition devised a strategy to ensure that learning could continue remotely for school-age children via an innovative TV and radio teaching program.
The proposal was accepted and rolled out by the government starting on July 2014 in collaboration with INGOs, NGOs and other development partners. The program also disseminated standard learning materials developed by teachers along with public health information on how to contain the virus and avoid contamination.
EFA-SL also took part in a joint education sector assessment and contributed to the development of the official Guidance and Protocol for Safe School Environment . This served to coordinate education actors for the reopening of schools and ensure that school environments were safe while the Ebola epidemic was ongoing. This document will serve as a blueprint for any future emergencies, should they arise in Sierra Leone, and is the first time that preventative health has been integrated within the education sector.
Advocacy and campaigning among communities was key for the coalition. It helped to develop a social mobilization strategy for a back-to-school campaign, using radio programs and local community meetings to reach out to citizens.
Communicating about the virus helped save lives
The coalition conducted training on research, networking, coordination and advocacy on education in emergencies in three regions of the country. This covered emergency programs, advocacy as well as Ebola prevention and control. Furthermore, discussions on district radio stations helped raise awareness of the impact of Ebola on education.
EFA-SL advocated for the distribution of teaching and learning materials to up to 300,000 schoolchildren, along with written guidelines for ensuring access to operational and safe learning environments. The coalition also collaborated with the government’s WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) section to advocate for, and monitor, hygiene practices and facilities in schools.
There is little doubt that the widespread dissemination of public health information saved lives and ultimately stopped the spread of the virus – and the coalition’s efforts played a significant part in this.
Planning ahead for better preparation
Although now free of Ebola, Sierra Leone faces huge challenges in repairing the damage incurred by the deadly disease. As a member of the committee developing the Post-Ebola Recovery Plan, EFA-SL will continue to lobby the government for the protection and delivery of the right to education – including in times of emergency. The country’s social and economic development depends on it.
Education For All Sierra Leone (EFA-SL) is one of 54 national civil society education coalitions supported by the Civil Society Education Fund (CSEF), which operates in Africa, Asia and the Pacific, the Middle East and Eastern Europe, and Latin America and the Caribbean. The CSEF is managed by the Global Campaign for Education, and funded by the Global Partnership for Education.