Mitigating COVID-19 impacts and getting education systems up and running again: Lessons from Sierra Leone

Reflections on some of the lessons from the Sierra Leone Ebola education response that could be relevant for countries facing shutdowns of their education systems due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

April 08, 2020 by Edward Davis, Global Partnership for Education, and Chris Berry, Department for International Development (DFID)
6 minutes read
A few girls who enrolled back in school after they had completed the transition program following the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone.  Credit: DFID/Chris Berry
A few girls who enrolled back in school after they had completed the transition program following the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone.
Credit: DFID/Chris Berry

As the DFID education advisers in Sierra Leone from when the Ebola crisis hit in 2014 to when Sierra Leone was officially declared Ebola free in 2015, we were involved in helping the government keep learning going, protect vulnerable children when schools were closed, reopen schools safely and make up for learning gains lost.

We reflect here on some of the lessons from the Sierra Leone Ebola education response that could be relevant for countries facing shutdowns of their education systems due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The immediate crisis response

Although there are lots of parallels, there are also big differences between the Ebola epidemic and the COVID-19 pandemic. The Ebola mortality rate resulted in heightened fear among the population, and behavior changed dramatically, which eventually reduced transmission rates. 

It appears that changes in behavior are taking longer with COVID-19. Ebola was not as infectious as the coronavirus and people had to be symptomatic to be infectious. This was relatively easy to determine from temperature checks.

This meant that it was easier to safely open and operate schools when infection rates where under control. It also meant that though hygiene precautions were necessary for the safe operating of schools, social distancing wasn’t.

Without a vaccine for COVID-19 yet, it’s unclear how long social distancing measures will need to stay in place, affecting reopening of schools and the speed at which this can be done while avoiding new clusters of infections and secondary epidemics.

This could lead to a very disruptive stop-go period during recovery, with schools reopening and then closing again – we should plan for this.

It also means that authorities may decide to wait for zero cases plus the two-week incubation period before reopening schools. This may mean long closures in some countries, nationally or locally – again we need to prepare for this.

Therefore, in terms of the secondary education impacts and successful mitigations we need to prioritize learning and evidence and get this documented and disseminated as we could have done a better job at learning from Ebola.

Below are some thoughts on what is useful to know about the immediate crisis response.

From mitigation to recovery and reopening of schools

  • Produce learning continuity programs broadcast through radio, TV and online, and provide resources such as radios, textbooks, study guides and equipment to the poorest. This can be accompanied through free call-in numbers for asking questions, or through establishing a remote tutoring service using toll-free numbers at a local level.
  • Ensure the safety and wellbeing of children and teachers: Make sure that all health and safety guidance and standard operating procedures are implemented. Teachers can used to monitoring and address psychosocial wellbeing of children. Special attention needs to be paid to vulnerable groups: children with special educational needs and adolescent girls. Monitoring the psychosocial well being of teachers and responding appropriately is also necessary.
  • Track learning at different grade levels: Learning was not monitored during the Ebola epidemic. It essential to track progress in key areas like early grade literacy and numeracy and key subjects at secondary to know who is being reached and how well students are learning so that interventions can be adapted accordingly.
  • Know the poorest will be affected the most by economic shocks. Annual household income in Sierra Leone fell from US$336 to US$131 during the Ebola epidemic and there was an increase in girls getting pregnant. Interventions will be needed to protect the poorest and most vulnerable and enable them to continue learning, such as conditional cash transfers.
  • Prepare for officials and teachers having other duties or being forced to leave their jobs. Crisis and post-crisis education budgets will be under pressure but for rapid and effective recovery, and education systems must keep their teachers. It is essential to support teachers through the crisis, enable them to take part in continuity of learning and prepare them for recovery and reopening as well as addressing recruitment gaps if these emerge. Salaries were maintained during the Ebola crisis and specially designed training courses prepared for returning teachers.

Helping schools to reopen

Some of the lessons from school reopening after Ebola that might be useful to consider include:

  • Reopen schools only when it’s safe to do so: Opening schools sends a message that things are returning to normal, but safety of students and teachers is paramount. During Ebola many schools were used as Ebola treatment centers and needed deep cleaning and new supplies of books and equipment. Reopening had to be planned and prepared for with health and wellbeing ensured. This included provision for handwashing stations in schools and psychosocial support for those who had been affected. The decision on when to reopen was data driven, based on the number of days the country had been Ebola free. All schools were opened in April 2015 after the number of Ebola cases fell to just six in the previous week.
  • Accelerate learning: School closures, even with mitigation measures, will result in slower learning progress. The poorest children are likely to fall further behind their richer peers. When schools reopen, large-scale assessment can identify learning gaps and inform remedial programming and learning opportunities so that all children catch up to grade level rapidly. After Ebola, the Government of Sierra Leone developed and implemented an accelerated curriculum, which was rolled out to teachers in all schools and designed to help students catch up.
  • Take a multi-sectoral approach to recovery: The impacts of infectious diseases like COVID-19 or Ebola can be felt across economic and social sectors. The approach to recovery should be coherent across sectors to rebuild effectively. Sierra Leone developed a Presidential Recovery Plan to guide investment and effort across livelihoods, social protection, education, and health.
  • Track progress with real time data: Regular, reliable data is crucial to guide decisions as schools are reopened. Mobile phones had been widely used to track the Ebola epidemic and this technology was used by the government to get monthly updates on progress with school reopening and identify hotspots for support.
  • Target additional support to the most vulnerable: During Ebola, there was a spike in teenage pregnancy while schools were closed and many children were directly affected by the loss of family members. When schools reopened, pregnant and lactating mothers found it difficult to get back to school. The government set up a transition program in July 2015 and 3,000 girls who had become pregnant during the Ebola epidemic benefited.
  • Use recovery as an opportunity for reform: A crisis like Ebola or COVID-19 forces policy makers to think differently about delivery and can also help forge political consensus. During the Ebola recovery period, the Sierra Leone government accelerated progress on approval of non-registered schools and conducted a payroll cleaning exercise, which removed ghost teachers from the payroll. Both issues had presented long standing challenges to the system.

In our next blog, we will look at the evidence from education responses to previous health emergencies.

Read also

How can Sierra Leone’s education response after Ebola help with the COVID-19 response?

Corrigendum: A previous version of this blog said that the next blog in this series would look at evidence from education responses to MERS and SARS. In fact, the next blog will only look at evidence after the Ebola crisis.

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