Concerns over children’s psychological health as Sierra Leone schools re-open for the first time in a year

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As schools open today for the first time in over nine months across Sierra Leone, World Vision is warning of the psychological scars that have been inflicted on children by the Ebola outbreak.

According to figures recently released by the government, over 8, 600 children lost one or both parents to the Ebola virus in the past year, while 1,450 children contracted the disease. World Vision says resettling Sierra Leone’s children and returning their lives to normalcy by re-opening schools will be a daunting task given the level of disruption their lives have gone through during the outbreak.

“Re-opening schools is not just a one-off event. It’s going to be a months-long journey,” says Alison Schafer, World Vision’s mental health and psychosocial support specialist, who is based in Freetown.

“Most children are very excited about going back to school after being idle at home for so long, but many are also fearful and worried. Although they may be concerned about the possibility of catching Ebola in the classroom, they are more worried that they’ve forgotten everything they’ve learned. They’re anxious about whether they can ever catch up.”

Equipping teachers with psychosocial support skills is key to helping students get back to their books, says Schafer who co-wrote a training manual being used nationally by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology to help teachers recognise and deal with signs of stress in children.

“We need to create a supportive learning environment where children feel safe to express their emotions about what they have endured,” Shafer explained.

“Already there are concerns that some pupils may never return to school. Many children began working —selling firewood and jobs like that—while out of school this past year. It will be hard for struggling families to sacrifice even that small income and send their children back, especially girls. We must advocate that all children have the opportunity to return to school,” she added.

World Vision has trained to date, more than 1,000 teachers in psychosocial support skills.

To help students get set for class, the charity is also helping to provide books, uniforms and school supplies to the 58,000 children in its sponsorship program.

The reopening had been set for March 30 as the rate of new infections slowed but the date was pushed back to April 14 with a spurt in new cases, mostly around the capital Freetown and three other western districts.

Only nine confirmed cases were reported in the seven days to April 5, the WHO said in its latest situation update, compared with 25 the previous week — a fifth consecutive weekly decrease and the lowest weekly total in almost a year.

UNICEF said it was working with the government to ensure children were safe by training 9,000 teachers on Ebola prevention, including hand-washing and regular temperature checks.

More than 1.3 million pupils have returned since schools reopened in Guinea in January, according to the agency, while at least 800,000 were back in class since the return in Liberia a month later.

“This number continues to increase as more schools become compliant with the protocols for safe school reopening. Cases of Ebola continue to be reported in Sierra Leone, but are well down from levels seen at the end of 2014,” UNICEF said in a statement.