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Welcoming our pupils and students back to school

April 13, 2015 By Gabriel Benjamin

Minister of Education, Dr. Minkailu Bah

Minister of Education, Dr. Minkailu Bah

As any teacher and lecturer will tell you, creating a positive school reopening program is really, really hard especially against the backdrop of the Ebola outbreak in the country. Pupils and students have minds of their own, and you can’t make them feel peppy and optimistic for coming to school. It takes elbow grease to retune their minds, simply because their motivation, aside being complex, is possibly low. While creating a positive school reopening program is not easy, it’s also not impossible.

Following the outbreak of Ebola in May 2014, government in July 2014 ordered all schools – pre-primary, primary, secondary and tertiary institutions – to be shut down. Consequently, UNICEF and other education development partners supported the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MEST) in launching the school radio teaching program for school children in October 2014. The radio program was designed to target over 1.7 million school children from pre-primary, primary, junior and senior secondary levels in every district across the country.

Lessons in normal school subjects such as English, Mathematics, Social Studies, Physical and Health Education, Psycho-Social/Life Skills, Hygiene and Hand Washing (which could include basic information on Ebola), and others were developed by professional teachers and delivered to the pupils in their homes through a network of 41 radio stations across the country. The network was coordinated by the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) and the Independent Radio Network (IRN).

“Although Ebola has disrupted the school system, we must not allow it to disrupt the continuous mental development of school children even if they are not going to school,” said Roeland Monasch, UNICEF Representative in Sierra Leone. Dr. Minkailu Bah, the MEST Minister, submitted that, “Ebola cannot stop our children from learning and that is why we have come up with this initiative to ensure continuous learning to keep them busy and minimize the likelihood of social vices such as teenage pregnancy.”

In an effort to facilitate the reopening of schools and move beyond pre-Ebola gains in the country’s educational system, MEST held a consultative meeting on January 21 at State House with other ministries and development partners to discuss ways for the reopening of schools within the shortest possible time. According to Dr. Bah, “Government would not continue to wait until the outbreak is finally eradicated, before schools can reopen”. March 30 was proposed for schools to reopen across the country, but following the outbreak of Ebola cases in Aberdeen, Western Urban Area, and in Kambia and Bombali, both in the Northern Province, the date was shifted to April 14.

Brima Michael Turay, the Deputy Director, School Broadcasting Unit and also Public Relations Officer, Ministry of Education, said: “We have started to put modalities in place through the School Re-opening Committee (chaired by Dr. Christina Thorpe) that was set up to put measures in place for the re-opening of schools.”

“Disinfection of all private and government schools across the country has commenced, keeping in mind that some of these schools were used as holding and treatment centers. Provision of  thermometers, water, hygiene and sanitation facilities in the schools to make sure pupils continue the practice of washing hands not just for Ebola but for any other viral diseases that could be transmitted easily through contact is also being put in place,” added Mr. Turay.

Government has also consented to pay the tuition fees of public schools pupils, from primary to senior secondary school level, and also pay for all public examinations, including the Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE) and the West Africa Senior Secondary School Examination (WASSCE) for the next two years.

In addition, government should also construct and display bulletin boards to send out key positive messages about Ebola in schools across the country. This will give both parents, educators, pupils and students a sense of social, emotional, and physical safety and protection against the virus.

As schools reopen across the country tomorrow, teachers and lecturers must brace up for new challenges that will be posed by pupils and students after a long stint at home by using research-based strategies, combining appropriate levels of cooperation, patience and an awareness of student needs to build positive classroom dynamics. Because positive attitudes of teachers in their classrooms and in schools generally can help solve a lot of pupils’ and students’ problems and can have twice an impact on student achievement as do the school policies regarding curriculum, assessment, staff collegiality, and community involvement.

There should also be comprehensive and effective management of the classroom, since classroom management has the largest effect on pupils’ and students’ achievement because they cannot learn in chaotic and poorly managed classrooms. Standard classroom rules and procedures should be employed. This will mitigate the negative effect of the Ebola virus on academic success. In addition, it will also lessen teacher burnout while enhancing knowledge retention.

While absenteeism should not be condoned as schools reopen, suspensions, substance abuse, provocations and bullying should also be discouraged. Sustained encouragement and motivation to learn should be given mostly to pupils and students. This will improve their academic achievements and stabilize their psychological well-being.

Also, the quality of teacher-pupils and lecturer-students relationship, which remains the keystone for all other aspects of performance, should be improved. Teachers and lecturers should know that this relationship has nothing to do with their personalities or even with whether the pupils or students consider them as friends. They should display appropriate levels of control – ability to provide clear purpose, assertive behaviour and strong guidance, appropriate levels of tolerance and cooperation and establish clear rules and procedures, while allowing consequences for bad behaviour.

The re-establishment of general group work, seat work, use of materials and equipment should be encouraged at the beginning and ending of each period or the day among pupils and students through discussion and mutual consent. As schools resume tomorrow, clear learning goals must be the driving force in the minds of all teachers and lecturers. These can be accomplished through providing feedback on goals and establishing cordial communicating channels with pupils and students.

Finally, let’s wish our educators, pupils and students a blissful academic resumption and an Ebola-free academic year.