By Danait Berhe, CEI Intern
A ten year-old, Amos Johnson, who is in second grade, at James. E. Green Elementary School in Logan Town, Liberia is one of the children who are frustrated by school closures due to the Ebola outbreak. Amos misses school and his friends; and he wants to go back to school immediately (Kennah, 2014). Schools are closed to prevent the spread of the disease and are currently used as patient holding centers. According to the 2014 Global Business Coalition for Education report (2014), some five million children are out of school indefinitely in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. In the meantime, similar to many other children, Amos and his younger brother Sylvester are forced to work the street, selling juice and tomato paste to help their family. Many children are appealing for the reopening of schools. Not only do they want to continue receiving academic instructions but also they miss their structured school environment, social life and their friends.
What is at Risk?
Literacy rates are low in most Sub-Sahara countries, and Liberia and Sierra Leone are only now recovering from many years of civil war. The Ebola outbreak is a devastating blow to an already fragile education system. Not only does it create instability, but also causes a set back to the progress made thus far; especially progress that was made to meet the second Millennium Development Goal’”Achieving Universal Primary Education. Along with many other Sub-Sahara African countries, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea will not meet the 2015 deadline to enroll all their children to primary schools. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were a pledge to uphold the principles of human dignity, equality and equity, and free the world from extreme poverty. The MDGs, with eight goals and a set of measurable time bound targets, established a blueprint for tackling the most pressing development challenges of our time (United Nations, 2014).
Risk to out-of-school children. In addition to not meeting the MDG goals, these severely affected nations have out-of-school children that are at a greater risk of violence, rape, child marriage, child labor, recruitment into fighting, prostitution and other life-threatening, often criminal, activities.
The rate of early marriage and pregnancy for young girls is increasing in an alarming rate. For example, in Sierra Leone, in one school alone, several six graders have become pregnant, and parents are planning marriages as an option to ‘protect’ and ‘provide’ for their daughters.
More and more children are working the streets to earn some income to help with economic instability experienced at home due to the loss of primary provider to Ebola infection. Sadly, indefinite out-of-school time will trap these vulnerable children in a cycle of poverty with devastating consequences for their health and economic development in the end.
Students who fall behind for a year or more are significantly more at risk of dropping out of school and this increased risk of drop out, coupled with the trauma of loss and greater poverty, could mean that large numbers of children will never return to the classroom (Global Business Coalition for Education Report, 2014).
Instability in the Children’s Lives
What happens to the development of children that experience instability or live in unstable environment? According to Sandstrom and Huerta (2013) who explored the extant literature on the effects of instability on children’s developmental outcomes and academic achievement, children thrive better when growing in a secure, stable and nurturing environment. Based on their research and synthesis of the effects of various forms of instabilities (Economic, Employment, Family, Residential, and Out-of Home) in child development; unstable living conditions and environment are detrimental to children’s cognitive, physical and emotional development. Unfortunately, the five million out-of school children in the Ebola affected countries experience more than one of the instabilities discussed in the Standstorm andHuerta study. Although their study looked at literature, and data from United States, their discussion is relevant to all children that are living in unstable environment. Below are some points for reflection:
Economic Instability: Low family income negatively affects children’s social-emotional, cognitive, and academic outcomes, even after controlling for parental characteristics.
Employment Instability: Parental employment instability is linked to negative academic outcomes, such as grade retention, lower educational attainment, and internalizing and externalizing behaviors.
Family Instability: Children demonstrate more negative behaviors when they lack the emotional and material support at home that they need to smoothly handle a family transition.
Residential Instability: Children experiencing residential instability demonstrate worse academic and social outcomes than their residentially-stable peers, such as lower vocabulary skills, problem behaviors, grade retention, increased high school drop-out rates, and lower adult educational attainment.
Out-of Home Instability: For infants, changes in child care arrangements can lead to poor attachment with providers and problem behaviors. For preschoolers, early care and education settings support children’s development of foundational school readiness skills; changes in care settings can disrupt the continuity of learning. For school-age children, changes in schools impede children’s academic progress and decrease social competence.
The priorities for children. In addition to the health sector, Liberia’s, Sierra Leone’s and Guinea’s national governments and all involved entities, have an urgent need to give priority to protecting the children and supporting the education sector during this time of instability. The instability caused by the Ebola outbreak will affect the children’s cognitive, physical, academic, social, emotional development negatively and it needs to be addressed quickly. Most importantly, it is important to remember that children’s early experiences shape who they are and affect lifelong health and learning. To develop to their full potential, children need safe and stable housing, adequate and nutritious food, access to medical care, secure relationships with adult caregivers, nurturing and responsive parenting, and high-quality learning opportunities at home, in child care settings, and in school.
So what can be done? Obviously aggressive efforts to halt Ebola are needed. Schools need to be thoroughly cleaned and sanitized before they reopen. The solutions, however, cannot be only medical. The countries that are most impacted by Ebola also need assistance in protecting children from abuse and exploitation and providing supports to them and their families during the coming months.
A Partial Solution: The Radio
Thanks to support from the U.S. based, Education Development Corporation, 10 community radio stations are teaching math and reading through pre-recorded lessons in programs that are broadcast every morning and evening in Liberia. This is part of a USAID Advancing Youth Project.
Global Business Coalition for Education Report. (2014). Ebola Emergency: Restoring Education, Creating safe schools, and Preventing long-term crisis. Retrieved from http://gbc-education.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/EbolaEducationReport1232014.pdf
Jolicoeur, L, & Becker, D. (2014, November 20). With Liberian schools closed non-profit puts lessons on the radio. http://www.wbur.org/2014/11/20/liberia-ebola-radio-education-lessons
Kanneh, F. M.(2014). Amid Ebola: Liberian Kids Yearn for Reopening of Schools. FrontPageAfrica. Retrieved from http://www.frontpageafricaonline.com/index.php/news/3894-amid-ebola-liberian-kids-yearn-for-reopening-of-schools
Sandstorm, H., & Huerta, S. (2013). The negative effect of instability in child development: A research synthesis. Low Income Working Families Discussion Paper 3. The Urban Institute. Retrieved from http://www.urban.org/UploadedPDF/412899-The-Negative-Effects-of-Instability-on-Child-Development.pdf
United Nations. (2014). The millennium development goal report. New York, NY: author.