More than five million children in West Africa are out of school indefinitely due to the Ebola epidemic crisis, and the number is even larger if university-age students are taken into account. But the crisis is not just about the downtime for these millions of students; its full magnitude is revealed in the loss of learning and opportunities for progress that are forgone with each passing day.
With recent histories of conflict and civil war, education gains have been hard-won in these countries where literacy is still very low. In recent years, more children have had access to school, with fewer of them dropping out, and more of them, especially girls, moving on to secondary school. But these important gains are quickly diminishing.
In a recent call to action on the Ebola emergency, the Global Business Coalition for Education notes that girls become more vulnerable when they are out of school, as out-of-school children are often at greater risk of violence, rape, child marriage, child labor, child soldiering, and prostitution. This situation may be worsened with projections of declining economic growth in the three countries most affected by Ebola – Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, as well as more orphaned or highly vulnerable children who have lost one or both their parents during the Ebola crisis.
As school closures are extended, the risk of dropout also grows. A World Bank Group analysis has shown that in Sierra Leone, an additional year of education could mean a 23 percent increase in a person’s income in some industries. But young people are now at serious risk of missing such opportunities that could lead them out of poverty. Further, as private sector activities have been disrupted, employment opportunities and prospects remain bleak even for recent graduates.
The World Bank Group is helping the three countries respond to Ebola in the education sector as they move from the emergency response phase to recovery and then preparedness of education systems to address future outbreaks.
In Sierra Leone, funds redirected from Ebola help keep radio distance learning programs on the air till the closure is lifted. Teachers are also being trained in the use of non-contact thermometers to identify sick children early.
While addressing the immediate impact of Ebola on education is challenging, rebuilding resilient systems to deal with future crises is even more so. For example, school administrators will need support to better monitor the physical and emotional health of students, and connect families with health services. Governments will also have to ensure that orphaned children can continue to go to school.
In Guinea, a new 'Stepping up Skills Project', within which, a ‘youth observatory’ will be developed with a database of youth profiles and locations will pave the way for a better tracking and monitoring system to locate people more easily during future outbreaks.
The affected countries and international partners are working together to get to zero Ebola cases and using the crisis to build stronger, more flexible, and more resilient education systems.