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.