Ebola virus means ‘school is not safe’

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Orla, Sunny and Millie talking to Sierra Leone Orla, Sunny and Millie talking to Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone

For the children of Sierra Leone, the threat of the Ebola virus has brought fear, boredom and alienation.

Nine months without school has left most children sitting at home with only parents and siblings for company, as the deadly disease spreads across much of West Africa.

Many families have been teaching their children by themselves to make sure they do not fall too far behind in their schooling.

But for 14-year-old Theresa, who lives on the outskirts of the capital, Freetown, nearly a whole school year has gone by without seeing her friends.

“Back then, before the Ebola virus, we were enjoying school times, but since school has closed it is boring,” she says. “Because we can’t touch our friends. Even if we have not seen them for a very long time, we can’t touch them to protect ourselves from Ebola.”
Schools in Sierra Leone had been due to open again at the end of March - but the government has now put that off for a few more weeks in the hope that Ebola cases may dwindle.

Nearly 10 cases a day are still being reported across the country.

Up to 18 March, 10,194 people had been reported as having died from the disease in six countries; Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea, Nigeria, the US and Mali.

“The Ebola cases are high now,” says Theresa. “So if we open school we may touch our friends. So I don’t think school should re-open now.”

Theresa and her 12-year-old schoolmate, Blessing, are huddling round the speaker of a borrowed mobile phone in the offices of the British Council in Freetown, trying hard to try to explain to three Jersey schoolgirls what life has been like over the past year.

The girls on the Jersey end of the link-up - Orla and Sunny, both 13, and 12-year-old Millie - are investigating the effects of Ebola on children’s lives for BBC School Report.

Les Quennevais School in Jersey and Theresa’s school Huntingdon Secondary in Allentown, Sierra Leone, had already established a link before the Ebola outbreak struck. They had just started work on a joint project about children’s rights.
Theresa and Blessing have been studying at home, and would love to be able to play with their friends again.

But the fear and the reality of Ebola is too strong to allow schools to re-open yet. And the girls are afraid too.

“It’s not safe,” says Theresa. “Because I am scared I will protect myself from Ebola by avoiding body contact, I won’t touch sick people.”

“I am afraid to go to school because of Ebola,” echoes Blessing. Theresa says parents are not yet ready to agree to send their children back to school because they fear the virus will spread quickly.

The girls from Jersey and Sierra Leone are keen to swap details of their everyday lives, which are different in so many ways.

Jersey is a relatively affluent island and Orla, Millie and Sunny describe their normal after-school activities of dance classes and playing computer games.

Though school food, school uniform and some “naughty boys” are common to both sets of students on different sides of the world.

But there is a silence on the line from Jersey when Theresa describes how one girl in her class lost her much of her family Ebola, forcing her to live with her aunt.

Head teacher Sia M’Bayo joins the conversation in Freetown and tells the School Report team in Jersey that in her school of around 300 pupils, six have lost both parents.

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