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Ebola-hit Sierra Leone goes back to school

14 April 2015, 12:01

Freetown - Sierra Leone's 1.8 million children prepared on Tuesday to return to school, eight months after classes were shut to halt the spread of the deadly Ebola virus.

Classrooms have been empty since the government announced a state of emergency in July last year in response to an outbreak which has killed around 10 500 people, almost all of them in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.

More than 3 800 of the deaths were in Sierra Leone alone, according to World Health Organisation's (WHO) figures.

"This marks a major step in the normalisation of life in Sierra Leone," Roeland Monasch, Sierra Leone representative for Unicef, the United Nations children's fund, said in a statement.

"It is important that all children get into school including those who were out of school before the Ebola outbreak. Education for all is a key part of the recovery process for the country."

The reopening had been set for 30 March as the rate of new infections slowed but the date was pushed back to 14 April with a spurt in new cases, mostly around the capital Freetown and three other western districts.

Only nine confirmed cases were reported in the seven days to 5 April, the WHO said in its latest situation update, compared with 25 the previous week - a fifth consecutive weekly decrease and the lowest weekly total in almost a year.

The Unicef said it was working with the government to ensure children were safe by training 9 000 teachers on Ebola prevention, including hand-washing and regular temperature checks.

'Safe places to learn'

More than 1.3 million pupils have returned since schools reopened in Guinea in January, according to the agency, while at least 800 000 were back in class since the return in Liberia a month later.

"This number continues to increase as more schools become compliant with the protocols for safe school reopening. Cases of Ebola continue to be reported in Sierra Leone, but are well down from levels seen at the end of 2014," Unicef said in a statement.

More than a third of Sierra Leone's population of six million are aged between three and 17.

The government aims to catch up ground lost in more than 8 000 schools by the end of the academic year and says it has released 67 billion leones ($15m) to build toilets and install wells and hand pumps.

The Unicef funded in its work on the return to school by at least 11 countries including United States, Britain, Germany and Japan - said it was supplying 24 300 hand washing stations, enough for three in every school, and cleaning equipment to prepare school buildings.

"Even as we put these extra measures in place to make schools safe places to learn, we must continue to maintain vigilance in the fight against the disease until it is completely eliminated," Monasch added.

It was not immediately clear how many schools would open on the first day back. In Guinea and Liberia pupils returned gradually over a period of weeks.

A small number of junior secondary schools have been open since 24 March for national examinations.

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