Buchanan, Grand Bassa County – Several principals, teachers and students of Grand Bassa County say COVID-19 is gradually “draining down” the educational system of the county – disrupting the learning agility of pupils, impacting the income of teachers, and presenting an uncertainty for senior high students who were preparing for their regional exams.
Even before COVID-19, there were many young people in Grand Bassa County who were reluctant to attend school, says Abenego Wesseh, who serves as Principal of the St. John Public School, an elementary and junior high school in Hartford Township. Since the outbreak began, Wesseh says he is increasingly concerned about what the disruption will mean for such pupils.
“Since the closure of schools, I have been worried because if school reopens today, I won’t get many of the students again because their minds are now on making their farm,” he said.
“Children are now focused on farming because they feel that it’s the easiest way they can generate funds for themselves.”
Classes were abruptly shut down by the government after the country recorded its first case of COVID-19 in March this year. The government was afraid that the virus could spread among students and overwhelm the health system.
Since then, the Ministry of Education has launched “education by radio”, to offer learning opportunities for young students now staying at home. However, it has fallen short of sorting out a remedy for senior high students, who are potential candidates for the regional exams.
“All we can tell our 12th graders, is that they continue doing research while they’re home because nobody knows when this COVID-19 will end in Liberia,” explained Nathaniel Cisco, County Education Officer for Grand Bassa County.
According to a press release published on the Ministry of Education or MOE website on May 27, “No date has been set yet, for the reopening of schools in Liberia”.
“The Ministry of Education in consultation with education and health sector stakeholders is finalizing a comprehensive policy aimed at outlining cleared strategies on mitigating several factors and challenges to facilitate the reopening of schools and complete the academic year 2019/2020 in line with the National curriculum,” stated the release. “The Ministry of Education recognizes the strike on students learning processes and financial instability of institutions, as well as teachers, and school-workers.”
Bassa High’s Brewing Contention
Meanwhile, Bassa High – the largest public school in Grand Bassa County – faces an enormous challenge when classes resume. Like most senior high schools, one of the brewing contentions is determining the academic status of current students. The school was nearing its 4th marking period test when the government ordered the closure of schools.
“What I see as a major effect of COVID-19 is the fact that we didn’t complete the curriculum, how are we going to promote students?” said Augustus Quoi, the school’s principal, who is not optimistic about promoting any student of his institution.
“Liberia’s educational sector was described as a mess by former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf because of our students’ weakness. Promoting them without completing the curriculum is a major challenge which I see as a major effect of COVID-19 on education.”
At the same time, Mr. Qoui is worried about the 12th Graders, who were expected to take the regional examination of the West Africa Examination Council, or WAEC.
“By now, we should have been helping our 12th graders and getting them prepared for WAEC,” he said, “but see where we are? Graduating them is another major problem.”
In Liberia, passing WAEC exams is a prerequisite to going to college, but with the pandemic already adversely impacting the country, there are lingering concerns that many students will have to wait a little bit longer to enroll into college.
Chinda Freeman is a 12th grade student of the Seventh Day Adventist School in Buchanan. She told LocalVoicesLiberia that she’s “disappointed about this school year”.
“See what COVID-19 has caused us? By now, we should have been preparing for graduation and college entrances but we are still sitting home doing nothing,” said the 19-year-old.
“What is hurting me is that I made a plan to have graduated before reaching 20 year-old this September, but I’m not sure that it will work. I am feeling too bad.”
Like Chinda, James King, a 12th grader of the Bassa High School, says the health crisis is making students “more boring at home”.
“I wish I could go back to school to learn new things, most especially at this time that we should have been sitting for WAEC,” James lamented.
“Some days, I can worry about my school because I don’t know whether school will open this year or not. Besides, I am scared about getting the coronavirus. This is seriously affecting our education”.
Another student asserted that COVID-19 has come to “damage” the happiness of students.
“My parents have been suffering for me to go to school; time for them to celebrate my success, then everything gone outside down,” said a disappointed Ruth Juludoe, who at age 18 is a 12th grader at the New Testament School in Buchanan city.
“What is hurting me most is the time we put in just because we wanted to take WAEC, but to no avail”.
Nathaniel Cisco, the County Education Officer, says 12 graders cannot sit the regional exams any time soon because “they have lots of things to learn before sitting for the test”.
“We have been meeting with school principals to find ways to help our 12th graders while they’re home but we have not concluded,” he said.
Teachers Decry Lack of Salary
While COVID-19 is making the fate of senior high school students unknown, it is also causing economic hardship for many teachers of private schools in Grand Bassa County. Private school teachers are often hired as contractors during the school year. Many of them are not paid during vacations or breaks.
Benjamin Joe, a teacher of the Salvation Army School located in the Fairgrounds community in Buchanan, told LocalVoicesLiberia that COVID-19 is “killing us gradually because many of us are now unable feed their homes”.
“Some of us have been striving to feed our families with the little we were making, but we have no means now to feed our families,” Joe said, adding that private schools depend on school fees to pay teachers, and that the closure of schools make it improbable for schools to raise money from school fees.
“We as private school teachers have been abandoned because our proprietors can only pay us when schools are in session,” added Jackson Willie, a teacher of the Buchanan Deaf and Dumb School.
“Since the COVID-19 outbreak, we have not taken pay because our proprietors say they depend on school fees to pay us. So in the absence of school, we have no pay”.
Martha Potter, a female teacher of the Sarah Sampson George School in the Sawmill Community supports Willie’s concerns, adding that teachers in the county have now turned to beggars.
“I am calling on the government to think about us the private school teachers because we are the victims of this lockdown,” she said.
At the same time, some self-supported students are worried about the value for the money they have paid to these private schools now that the school year is being disrupted.
Mardea Garway, 26, is a self-supported ninth grader. She told LocalVoicesLiberia, “I paid my money just to go to school, but I have learned nothing good this year because of the virus”.
She continued: “I am feeling very disappointed because ever since some of us should have been out of high school but the lack of money kept us back. Now we tried to hustle and support ourselves, again another problem.”
Grand Bassa County Education Officer, Nathaniel Cisco admits that the lack of support to teachers of private schools and volunteers at public schools is among the many challenges the county school system endures.
“Private school teachers are challenged because most of the private schools depend on school fees to pay workers, but we’ve started talking with some private schools to find ways to help their teachers,” said Cisco, who added that his office has been reaching out to partners to make interventions.
And Mr. Wesseh, Principal of the St. John Public School who is worried about a massive drop in the enrollment when his school reopens, is also afraid that the lack of support to teachers has worsened.
“I’m also worried as to whether many of the teachers will return to classes after COVID-19,” he said. “Even if they return, what do they have to teach the students? Because many of them are not doing research because they have to hustle to feed their families.”
He also predicts drop in the enrollment of students following COVID-19, but said they will work with teachers and parents to ensure that students enroll in a very high number.