Coronavirus: What education ministers can learn from Ebola

Liberia's former Minister of Education shares his personal reflections on how lessons learned from the Ebola crisis can apply to the coronavirus pandemic.

April 02, 2020 by George K. Werner , and Paul Skidmore, Rising Academies
3 minutes read
Family in Montserrado County, Liberia. Credit: GPE/Kelley Lynch
A family in Montserrado County, Liberia
Credit: GPE/Kelley Lynch

Schools around the globe are closed. More than a billion school children are being deprived of their education. And for some of these students in particular, there is a grim familiarity to all this.

In Sierra Leone and Liberia, the high school seniors whose final exams have just been postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic are the same whose entry to secondary school was delayed by the Ebola crisis six years ago.

Ebola was an economic and humanitarian catastrophe for Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, claiming more than 11,000 lives and keeping children out of school for 10 months.

But in and amongst its terrible legacy are important lessons for policy-makers about how to keep children safe and learning during a crisis like the one we are currently facing - and what to do when it passes.

Here are four.

  1. Fight the disease

The first is that the fight against the disease comes first. No education minister will have taken the decision to close schools lightly. But it was necessary then, and is necessary now.

Age-appropriate information should be provided to students so they understand the reason for the closures and the nature of the enemy we face.

And given how many children in these countries are first-generation learners, don’t underestimate the value of these children as a channel for getting health messages to parents and communities.

  1. Deploy distance learning

Second, deploy your alternative out-of-school and distance learning solutions as rapidly as possible. When schools close, children lose an anchor to the education system that makes it much less likely they will find their way back. It is critical to provide an alternative as quickly as possible to keep them engaged. This was a problem during Ebola when it took too long to get emergency education radio broadcasts going.

The key to moving fast is to find partners with good off-the-shelf content and leverage the most appropriate technologies for getting that content out there. The right technology will depend greatly on the context: online is of limited relevance in countries like Sierra Leone and Liberia where only 1 in 8 have access to the internet, whereas radio and SMS are more ubiquitous.

  1. Coordination

Distance learning is about tearing down the walls between the education system and its students, but it’s also vital to tear down walls within government. Better, faster coordination within government is vital in a crisis like this.

In particular, children’s exposure to harm - malnutrition where school meals are their main source of calories, the risk of physical and sexual abuse from family and community members - is greatly increased. To protect children, ministries of education, health, social protection and gender have to work together. That’s the third lesson.

  1. After the crisis, reform

Fourth, when schools do finally reopen, Ministers need to recognize the reform moment it represents. As a Minister, opportunities for radical reforms don’t come along very often. This will be one of them.

The challenges will be starker than ever: traumatized students and school staff, overcrowded classrooms, months of missed content to catch-up on. But there will also be the political will to do some radical things, and to pay for them. The work we did after Ebola to tackle the scourge of ‘ghost teachers’ who collect a paycheck without ever showing up to school is one example. Our experiment with bringing in non-state actors to manage randomly assigned government schools is another.

To close schools during a crisis like this is to ask our youngest generation to make a tremendous sacrifice on behalf of its elders.

The way to honor that sacrifice, when the coronavirus crisis abates, is to put education reform at the heart of the recovery. We owe them nothing less.

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Great write-up, Min. Werner.
It’s our hope that the lessons shared in this piece can be applied in our today’s situation.

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