By Alice Urban, Global Communities – Sanniquellie, Liberia – Three infrared thermometers, 4.5 kilos chlorine, six pairs of heavy-duty rubber gloves, gum boots, and at least one isolation room – these are not items on an average back-to-school list. But as Liberian schools gradually open after a near six-month Ebola-induced hiatus, these are all materials schools must have before they are authorized to open.
Global Communities, a U.S.-based nonprofit active in Liberia’s Ebola response, is working with principals, teachers and parents in cooperation with the Ministry of Education and UNICEF in ten of the country’s 15 counties to make sure schools have the tools and information they need to follow the country’s new strict hygiene protocols and keep students safe.
This month, Global Communities will support the delivery of hygiene kits – including thermometers, boots, cleaning products and handwashing stations – to 410 schools across the country and conduct 27 training workshops to ensure school personnel understand how to use the materials and maintain safe hygiene standards. Schools were slated to open Feb. 2, but the Government of Liberia extended the deadline to allow adequate time for administrators to prepare to meet the Ebola-related protocols. Students began to return to their classrooms on Feb. 16, and all schools are expected to open by early March.
“I think the only thing we have left to do is to clean the schoolyard and fence in the property,” said Vice Principal Youh Togbah of Unification Town Public School near Yekepa in northern Nimba County. Recently built, the freshly-painted shamrock green compound has yet to be used because school opening was delayed. “We are excited to start [the school year] because the children will be able to learn again. We have been waiting for a long time,” she added.
Wandering the schoolyard, Anthony, who is short for 10 years old, nods vigorously when asked if he is happy to go back to school. He nods again that he’s excited to see his friends and runs across the yard to a group of boys who also came to register – his oversized UNICEF backpack bumps low on his legs.
Unification Town Public School plans to open Feb. 23, once administrators have met with parents to explain the new protocols and urge families to practice safe hygiene habits at home as well.
“We are happy to have these materials and to make sure students know how to wash their hands. This is a practice they can take home,” said Togbah. “I think [the training and distribution] will help us in a long way since [protocol hygiene practices] keep you safe from other germs as well. It will help us a whole lot apart from Ebola.”
Developed by the Government of Liberia in partnership with UNICEF, the Safe School Protocols provide “minimum requirements to ensure that every school is safe for all students and staff from a health, water, sanitation and hygiene point of view.”
Protocols include collecting information on students’ possible Ebola contacts at registration, fever monitoring at school entrances, the provision and maintenance of handwashing stations, an isolation room and a disinfection plan. In addition, schools must coordinate with County Health Teams to develop a referral system with health facilities should students or staff become sick.
At Unification Town School on Feb. 19, Global Communities Trainer Gray Zawu discussed isolation room procedures with a group of more than 40 teachers, principals and parent teacher association representatives from the surrounding area. Each school, he explained, should designate a holding room for symptomatic persons to wait while school officials notify emergency contacts and launch the healthcare referral system. Sick persons then will be escorted to designated treatment facilities.
“Remember, we don’t say Ebola Room,” Zawu half-joked. “It’s an isolation room. You’re already making the person feel bad.” His twinge of dark humor is not uncommon with those who’ve been fighting Ebola for nearly a year. He adeptly shifted from upbeat to serious. “But really, we have to think of the psychosocial impacts of Ebola or suspected-Ebola and be sensitive.”
Zawu has done his fair share of Ebola-related training – from burial team sessions to disinfection team demonstrations, from swab testing workshops to infection prevention education. “I try to adapt my training to the audience,” he said. “I want people to really understand what I am teaching and why it is important, not just repeat it back.”
As the training continued, Zawu had volunteers practice using an infrared thermometer, which will be used to test the temperature of everyone who enters the school grounds. In addition, he went over the contents of the hygiene kits that schools will receive. Participants asked for clarification and raised concerns. The group discussed challenges such as how to ensure students enter school grounds from one checkpoint when the compound is not fenced, and how to find and replace thermometer batteries.
Nationwide, back-to-school preparations are coordinated by the Ministry of Education in collaboration with UNICEF. “Partner organizations” – other nonprofits and non-governmental organizations – volunteered to be assigned different roles throughout the country. These roles included “last mile” distribution to schools directly, protocol training, social mobilization to promote safe school hygiene behaviors in the larger community, and the promotion and support of water, sanitation and hygiene facilities in schools to help reduce disease transmission. Global Communities is leading coordination efforts in Nimba County, among others.
While Zawu continued his session – and a Ministry of Education representative conducted a simultaneous workshop for another 20 participants in the classroom next door – Global Communities teams deployed to distribute kits to the 24 schools represented by workshop participants. Some 60 kits bumped in the back of five Global Communities pickups, and teams of two drove to remote communities to drop off kits and verify their contents with recipients.
“We want the kits to be in place right away, when the training is fresh in everyone’s minds,” said Liz Smith-Geddeh, Nimba County advisor for Global Communities. “We’re sending teams now so when the principals get back, their kits are already there.”
She added that the entire process takes an enormous amount of mobilization capacity and manpower, and more than 20 organizations are involved in the preparation across the country. In addition to distribution and training, UNCIEF and the Ministry of Education will monitor proper material use. Global Communities’ participation is possible as part of the USAID-funded Assisting Liberians with Education to Reduce Transmission (ALERT) program.
As the distribution teams hit the dusty road, Global Communities Community Development Promoter Helen Sherman and Driver Jonathan James headed for three schools near the Guinea border. About an hour drive from Unification Town, the communities have limited access to markets and therefore the materials needed to open schools. The kits will ensure they have what they need.
Moving efficiently, Sherman and James delivered materials for the first school to the vice principal. They went through a detailed process to remove all of the kit materials for the vice principal to verify receipt, and he signed off that everything was there. Sherman reminded him to safeguard the materials and to work with the principal when he returns from the training to set things up at the school, which is located just down the road from the vice principal’s home. Ministry monitors were to visit soon after.
The team continued to the two other communities, completing their distribution as the workshop concluded back in Unification Town. With training completed and kits in place, these schools should be cleared to open in the coming days. They’ve successfully checked off everything on their back-to-school list.
“I think the process has gone very fine,” said Sherman back at Global Communities’ Sanniquellie office. “I think that people will feel good to use the kits, and good hygiene habits will become practice, and that practice will become habit.”