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It’s back-to-school time in Liberia, where Ebola forced an unwanted break

BY   January 22, 2015 at 8:00 AM EDT
A boy walks through an empty classroom in Monrovia, Liberia, on July 31, 2014. The school, like others throughout the country, was closed to protect students from contracting Ebola. Photo by stringer/AFP/Getty Images

A boy walks through an empty classroom in Monrovia, Liberia, on July 31, 2014. The school, like others throughout the country, was closed to protect students from contracting Ebola. Photo by stringer/AFP/Getty Images

Schools in Liberia are reopening next month now that the Ebola outbreak, which has killed thousands, appears to be under control.

The students are more than ready to return, said Iris Martor, a 32-year-old school nurse in the capital Monrovia. “They were getting bored, just sitting around,” she said. “They have been coming in to try on their uniforms. Even the parents are excited.”

When the largest documented outbreak of Ebola hit West Africa last year, and new cases were climbing, the Liberian government banned large public gatherings, including closing all schools last summer, to try to keep the disease from spreading.

Normally, when the school year ends in June, the students know they’ll be back in September. But this time, they didn’t know when it would be safe to return, Martor said.

Liberia has more than 8,400 confirmed and suspected cases of Ebola out of a total 21,700 cases in all of West Africa, according to the World Health Organization. More than 8,600 people have died in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

But the picture is improving. Twelve of Liberia’s 15 counties reported no new cases of Ebola in the past week, cited the United Nations’ Ebola response team.

With new Ebola cases declining, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf directed schools to reopen across the country on Feb. 2.

The announcement came suddenly with less than a month’s notice, said Martor, who works at a school run by More Than Me, a nonprofit that helps educate girls in the crowded shanty town of West Point. (Read how she and other More Than Me staff members used the time off to help educate the community about Ebola.)

Her school, which had planned to reopen in March, had to accelerate repairs to the buildings and hand out uniforms, shoes and books to the returning students. They now plan to open their doors on Feb. 9.

The students were given study materials before they left last year, and teachers followed up with them through home visits, she said.

Luckily, no students or staff contracted the virus, which Martor attributes to the community-based Ebola awareness campaigns.

But those in the community who did survive are still treated like they have the disease, she said. They are rejected by their families and friends, and some even lost their jobs.

It will take time to remove the stigma, said Martor. “It took us three to four months for people to accept that Ebola was here (initially). We are still trying to change the mindset that these people can no longer transmit Ebola and they are virus-free.”

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