Educationists and policymakers, especially of countries where schools have never remained closed for such extended periods, are now looking at the West Africa experience for important insights into the short- and long-term consequences of government-mandated classroom shutdown
Drawing on data from the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, a recent report estimates that, if dropouts increase by the same rate, as many as one crore secondary school-age girls across the world may drop out of school once they reopen (Representational)
The closest and the most useful comparison for the current COVID-19-induced school closures across the world is with closures during the Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2014. While the current pandemic and the Ebola epidemic are different in terms of scale, they were similar in how education was hit quickly and hard in the respective outbreak regions. Educationists and policymakers, especially of countries where schools have never remained closed for such extended periods, are now looking at the West Africa experience for important insights into the short- and long-term consequences of government-mandated classroom shutdowns.
Forced out of school
More than 10,000 schools in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia were closed during the 2014 epidemic to break the chains of transmission, given that children and young people can be vectors of transmission, and contact rates are high in schools. Consequently, 50 lakh students in these countries were pulled out of classrooms. While schools in Sierra Leone were closed for nine months, those in Guinea and Liberia did not open for almost six months. By the time they reopened, students had lost roughly 1,848 hours of education, ranging from 33 weeks in Guinea to 39 weeks in Sierra Leone, according to the 2015 UNDP report on the socio-economic impact of the epidemic.
Many never went back
Once the school gates reopened, many students did not return to the classrooms. According to phone surveys conducted by the World Bank, about 25% of the students in Liberia and 13% in Sierra Leone did not go back to school after reopening. Aside from the 30,000 children orphaned by the epidemic in the three countries, the school dropouts were attributed mainly to economic reasons. In other words, the negative impact of classroom shutdowns was disproportionately borne by the children of the poorest families.
The Ebola epidemic caused economic hardships to many families. Business closures and also the government-mandated quarantine period for breadwinners who had come into contact with an infected person left many households without a steady income, and even resulted in job losses. With limited social protection measures in place, many families calculated the financial and opportunity costs of educating their children and that, consequently, led to students dropping out.
School closures and consequent increase in dropout rate also posed child protection challenges. A 2018 guidance note brought out by The Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action reported that school closures due to the Ebola epidemic had led to a growth in child labour in Sierra Leone as children of poor families were expected to contribute to the family income. Children also reported greater levels of corporal punishment from parents.
Girls worse affected
Even among the students worst affected by school closures in 2014, there was a gender divide. Girls, studies showed, bore the greater cost with rising physical and sexual abuse and violence and an increase in early pregnancies. In Sierra Leone, during the Ebola outbreak, cases of teenage pregnancy more than doubled.
“Girls’ enrolment — already lower than boys — did not return to pre-crisis levels. In Liberia, about eight of every 100 girls of primary school age were out of school before the outbreak. By 2017, this number had almost tripled to 21. Similarly, in Guinea, as of 2018, girls were 25% less likely than boys to enrol in secondary school compared with pre-crisis levels. One study from Sierra Leone found that girls in highly affected communities were 16% less likely to be in school after they reopened,” states a report that was released by a nonprofit international organisation called the Malala Fund, which analysed data from the Ebola epidemic to ascertain educational consequences of Covid-19 for young girls.
“In the face of greater poverty and parental mortality, girls took on more domestic responsibility and were at increased risk of sexual exploitation, with many forced into transactional sex. In areas where Ebola caused high disruption, girls aged 12 to 17 were 7.2% more likely to become pregnant. Figures show that the outbreak caused the overall teenage pregnancy rate to double,” the report states.
Drawing on data from the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, the report estimates that, if dropouts increase by the same rate, as many as one crore secondary school-age girls across the world may drop out of school once they reopen.