Schools in Liberia reopened on Monday after being closed for more than six months following the Ebola outbreak that killed thousands in the West African country.
Even as students head back to classrooms, there will be strict safety measures in place, including taking children’s temperatures when they arrive to school and making sure they wash their hands before taking their seats, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund.
The virus, spread through direct contact with body fluids, has claimed the lives of more than 3,800 in Liberia in the past year and more than 9,000 in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea combined. The number of new Ebola cases, however, has been on the decline with the World Health Organization recently saying that the number has dropped to its lowest levels in seven months.
African leaders are cautiously optimistic, and at a summit in Guinea over the weekend promised to eradicate the epidemic in 60 days. Last month, Guinea reopened its schools and more than 1.3 million students have since returned. Schools in Sierra Leone – where disease transmission still remains high – will reopen at the end of next month.
Because of the outbreak, schools in the three countries did not reopen at the end of July and August, leaving 5 million children without education for months.
“We don’t expect all schools to reopen immediately,” Manuel Fontaine, UNICEF’s regional director for West and Central Africa, said in a statement. “Typically it can take up to a month before the majority of students are back in the classroom. Throughout that period, education authorities will be working to ensure that conditions are safe as possible.” As children return to classrooms, there are still additional concerns, including fears that the schools may not be ready to open and the emotional toll of so many children losing parents. According to UNICEF, more than 16,000 children have lost parents or caregivers to Ebola.
Because the number of cases have dropped significantly, President Obama announced earlier this month that by April he will bring back most of the 1,300 American troops who had been deployed to West Africa to fight the epidemic.