The gates of the United Methodist University have been closed since August 2014 because of the Ebola virus in Liberia.
Students will return to their classrooms in February, a positive sign that the Ebola outbreak is coming under control in this West African country that at one point was reporting 300 new cases each week.
Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf ordered all schools closed on July 30 in an attempt to contain the deadly epidemic. The World Health Organization reports just 48 news cases there in the past three weeks, bringing the total number of Ebola cases involving Liberians to 8,331, with 3,538 deaths since the start of the epidemic.
The government has said schools will reopen by Feb. 2. The United Methodist school system has endorsed the Liberian government’s plan, but will not be able to reopen all the denomination’s schools by that date, said the Rev. Sampson Nyanti, associate director of the Department of General Education and Ministries of the United Methodist Liberia Conference.
There are 60 United Methodist schools and one United Methodist university in Liberia.
Concern has been expressed that the deadline doesn’t give schools enough time to make sure all the procedures are in place for a safe environment. That includes having chlorine water and soap, thermometers to monitor temperatures and someone to oversee that all children, teachers and any visitors wash their hands before entering classrooms.
“Students should wash their hands and have their temperature checked before going to their classes,” Nyanti said.
Concern over school fees
Another concern is that parents will need more time to pay school fees since many were out of work or under quarantine for the past six months. The Liberia Conference’s education department is allowing each principal to come up with how to relieve financial pressure on parents.
“Remember, the government is asking all schools to institute a payment plan that will divide school fees into three parts,” Nyanti said.
College of West Africa is one of the most expensive United Methodist high schools in Monrovia. School fees are $427 U.S. per semester while government schools cost $50 U.S.
Richard Wiah, president of the College of West Africa, said he was happy about the government decision to reopen schools. “Ebola and money should not be used as an excuse to keep the schools closed perpetually,” he added.
Parents will never have all the money needed for school fees at any one time, he said, noting that an appeal to the government for subsidies to the schools would be the best way forward.
The Ganta United Methodist School in Nimba County in northern Liberia is unlikely to open by Feb. 2, Principal Roger Swy Domah said. Parents of the students in his school are not ready for their children to return unless they get a scholarship to help pay school fees, he explained.
“We cannot afford to bring teachers and other staff to this institution when we are not sure how we are going to pay them,” Domah said.
“Reopening schools is better than letting our children stay home for another semester or year,” said Linda Brooks, a parent.
She said the government should appeal to private institutions to put in place a payment plan that will enable parents to pay their children tuition without going through too much stress.
“You know we used all our money for the festive season,” she added.
New graduation date for university
United Methodist University has set Feb.16 as the date for students to return to school. The university is holding meetings on Ebola training for their response teams for the various satellite campuses around the country.
According to the Rev. George K. Weagba, university vice president for institutional research and development, students are excited about resuming their studies. Weagba said a new graduation date will be set for students who had planned to graduate before the schools closed.
*Swen is editor and publisher of West African Writers, an online publication about United Methodist happenings in West Africa and assists the denomination in Liberia with coverage for United Methodist Communications.