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Sightsavers Reports

Teacher Abdul’s experience of Ebola and COVID-19 in Sierra Leone

A man wearing a blue shirt stands outside of a school.

In Sierra Leone, school closures are not a new phenomenon. During the Ebola epidemic from 2014 to 2016, schools shut across the country for nearly nine months.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced schools to close again. For six months, nearly two million pre-primary and primary, 450,000 junior secondary and 300,000 senior secondary students were out of school in Sierra Leone.

The disruption is huge, particularly for one cohort of students, who were making the important transition from primary school to junior school during the Ebola epidemic. Now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, once again they are at an important stage in their lives, either progressing to higher education or entering the job market.

To find out the challenges of teaching children, particularly those with disabilities, during health crises we spoke with Abdul Kandeh Turay, a teacher at a secondary school in Rokulan.

He’s one of the 180 teachers across 45 schools in Sierra Leone who we’ve trained to become inclusion champions, to ensure children with disabilities can learn alongside their peers.

“I have a passion for teaching and have been teaching for a while now, 11 years,” Abdul says. “I am Muslim and my Islamic teacher once told me the best people are the ones who learn and teach.  I teach ages 11 to 16 in junior school.

“I taught during the Ebola epidemic in 2015. It affected our work greatly, because of the risk of transmission we were all afraid. It was very deadly.

“Schools closed down but, when they reopened, people were afraid to send their kids again and we had to encourage them. The school closing has a very negative impact. Some of the children would forget about learning and decided not to return. It would take some time to convince them to come again, and the girls are very vulnerable.

“Our education system here is very weak, if these kids stop going to school for a while, some could be persuaded to do things to sway them away from their learning – teenage pregnancy or early marriage.

Students from the school play outside.

“It was during Ebola that we started the radio teaching programme and we used this model during COVID-19,” adds Abdul. “We had solar radios that can be charged by winding. We recorded lessons which were aired.

“Children with disabilities were prioritised during Ebola, but most of them did not return to school for a year. Some of them did not return at all. It is different with COVID-19 because we have not seen any disabled children not coming back to school.

“Before Ebola, our knowledge about inclusive education was very limited. It’s only after the training that we have received from Sightsavers that we know these people have the right to be educated just as any other person, so we have ensured they have returned to school. They [children with disabilities] are much better off. They feel at home, they feel included, they are free, they don’t feel stigmatised, they interact with others. Before, they always shy away from others.

“Sightsavers has also supplied hygiene materials. It has helped us a lot, especially for the girls with disabilities. The girls didn’t know how to take care of themselves, they didn’t have the materials. Now they have the [hygiene and sanitary] kits and they were taught by our mentors. We have only one female teacher. The children refer to her as ‘mother’, and if they have problems, they are not afraid to talk to her. Before this support, she didn’t have the knowledge of how to help them use the kits.”

A girl with a face mask sits outside listening to a radio.
Marie, who has benefited from the inclusive education programme, types braille notes while listening to the national radio education programme on a radio provided by Sightsavers.

“I am desperately looking forward to the school reopening. I am looking forward to having my kids back.

“The distance learning has helped them a lot. The support from Sightsavers is exquisite. During COVID-19 we didn’t have any other organisation giving social support, so it was very timely. The parents appreciate it so much, they are so happy. We have some girls whose parents refused to send them to school but because of Sightsavers’ work, and the support parents have seen us giving to their children, they have brought them back to school.

“When school is about to open, we have orientations sessions to train new teachers on including children with disability. I hope inclusive education will continue.

“There is some stress but it will not be like Ebola. The number of deaths was far higher than now. This time it will be different.”

 


During the Ebola epidemic, Sightsavers provided food to children with disabilities and their families, and worked closely with the government to support children with disabilities to get back to school when safe. Now, during the COVID-19 pandemic we have been supporting children with disabilities to continue their learning through distance learning via national radio education programme. We have also provided hygiene kits, which include sanitary pads, bathing soaps, toothpaste, brush, towels, anti-perspirants and hand sanitisers.

The Education for All project was initially funded by the European Commission and is now funded by People’s Postcode Lottery.

A woman sits next to a teenage girl.

Learning during COVID-19

Sightsavers project officer Eric Musa visits Marie, who has been blind since birth, to find out how she’s continued her education throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Marie’s story
A street with hand washing stations.

“We have some girls whose parents refused to send them to school. Because of Sightsavers’ work, we could bring them to school.”

A street with hand washing stations.

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