MONROVIA – Thousands of Liberian children in pristine uniforms flocked back to school on Monday as classrooms opened their doors for the first time after a six-month hiatus designed to stem the spread of the worst Ebola outbreak in history.
Dozens of schools reopened, in a sign the outbreak is ebbing in Liberia, once its epicenter. The epidemic has killed more than 9,000 people there and in Sierra Leone and Guinea.
The closures were yet another setback for a country whose health system and economy, based on diamonds, coffee and cocoa, were devastated by the virus.
At the peak last summer, Ebola patients were collapsing outside overflowing hospitals but now there are only a handful of new cases a week.
In the sunny courtyard of a Catholic school in the Congo Town district of the capital Monrovia, hundreds of students gathered to hear the principal’s welcome. Medics took children’s temperatures and told them not to stand too close together.
“I feel very great being in school in the first day, most especially after a long period of time waiting for this day,” said teenager Faith Sayeh.
But in the classrooms there were some empty desks as parents kept their children at home while other schools remained closed.
“Only one of my seven children I have registered,” said Lindsay Seakor, who lost her job last August due to the epidemic and says she cannot afford to pay for books and uniforms.
Some schools opened on Monday but had to send students home by midmorning because teachers failed to turn up. George Wuo, a regional director of the ministry of education, said all schools in the country would have to open by March 2 or face fines.
Neighboring Guinea reopened most of its schools in January, but some parents have withdrawn children amid rumors schools were infected with the virus.
Sierra Leone hopes to open schools by the end of next month. Around 30 have been converted into treatment centers and will have to be emptied and decontaminated first.
In Liberia, some of about a million enrolled students have been following lessons by radio.
“Authorities in the three countries are looking at catchup sessions and canceling some school vacations. It will be challenging,” said Sayo Aoki, education specialist in Ebola Emergencies at the U.N. Children’s Fund.