Kakata, Margibi County – As the impact of the coronavirus puts strain on all sectors, private schools in Margibi County face a risk of collapse due to government’s regulations that keep the doors of schools shut nationwide.
Across Margibi County, there are more private secondary schools than government-funded secondary schools.
Data from the county office of the Ministry of Education shows that there is a total of 47 senior secondary schools in Margibi County. Only seven of this number are public schools – giving private schools the most responsibility to provide education for students in the county.
But as the coronavirus pandemic keeps raging, and the complete reopening of schools seems more uncertain, private schools will have to endure the long-term impact of the economic challenges presented by the outbreak. With closure of schools, private school teachers are not receiving salaries.
Vandi Koroma, who serves as president of the Margibi County Private Schools Association, says the hardship faced by over 400 private school teachers in the county (who are not being paid their salaries due to COVID-19) is becoming alarming.
Koroma says that, since the closure of schools on March 17th – a day after the country’s first case was confirmed – most private schools run by faith-based organizations and those with sole proprietorship have refused to pay their teachers, despite collecting around 80% of the tuition fees from students before the end of the first semester.
“It is an act of wickedness; you can’t collect school fees from students, and you refuse to pay the poor teachers. How do you want them to survive?” Koroma said.
“We will ensure that before teachers get hired at any private school next year, the association must be involved so we will not experience what we are going through in the future.”
One of the many teachers feeling the impact of this situation is Mohammed Kemokai, a young career teacher who teaches Physics and Mathematics at the Saint Augustine Episcopal Mission School in Kakata.
Although he typically earns under US$50 dollars a month, he has been committed to the classroom. But his passion is slowly vanishing because, as he sees it, teachers are given “no value in the society”.
“Many of our private schools are not capacitated to pay teachers,” he said. “All the time, teachers have been home; some schools even paid teachers for [only a] half month in March.”
Kemokai says these schools are “completely insincere,” alleging that although they collect fees from students, they are insensitive to the teachers’ plight.
He wants the government to provide stimulus packages for teachers, as the health crisis continues to make life difficult for them.
Another teacher, Cleophus Jordan is similarly disappointed with the situation. He is appalled that the school he works for has invoked the force majeure clause in his contract – this means the school is not legally obligated to pay him his salary during a crisis.
“If you treat people like this, you are being very inhumane,” Jordan said. “The time will come when you will want me to come back to use my expertise and [you will want]to give me L$7,000 [US$35] and L$8,000 [US$40] as my monthly salary.”
Meanwhile, the principal of the St. Augustine Episcopal Mission School said his school is no exception to the effect of the economic burden created by the pandemic.
The principal, Abe Kortu, argues that the application of the “force majeure” clause is not his making.
“I don’t owe teachers since the outbreak, because the teachers signed a contract and there’s a clause that says: ‘Force Majeure’ – in the event of natural disaster, national disaster or unforeseen circumstances the contract between the institution and the individual is automatically suspended or cancelled,” Kortu explains.
“Since schools were closed in March, we paid them for the entire March, and we don’t owe them.”
Like the Episcopal school, George Varpilah Gibson United Methodist School – also located in Kakata – is facing similar challenges, as a result of the health crisis.
Principal Alexander Boe says the school is run based on monies collected as fees, and that the mandatory closure of school has disrupted its smooth operations.
Boe admits that the school owes teachers, but said his administration has “no reason to default” on the 10 months contract signed with teachers.
“We promised them that once they signed contract with us for 10 months, we owe them. No matter what amount we owe them, it is our responsibility to pay their arrears,” he said.
But Mr. Boe did not say when the school will be able to pay the salary arrears of these teachers.
Meanwhile, Saint Paul Lutheran School is one of few schools in the county that has paid all of its teachers in full, based on their contracts, and despite the current situation.
Gutoe Jallah, the school’s business manager, said although students still owe fees in huge sums of Liberian dollars, the administration is keen on living up to the terms and conditions of the contact it signed with teachers, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Our intended purpose is, even if we do not generate revenue in this crisis, to meet the needs of our teachers,” he said, adding that the administration is going the extra mile to ensure teachers are paid.