Educating in the Time of COVID19 in Sierra Leone

Written by: Janice Williams (Founder/Executive Director Sudu & Co-founder, EduGo)

Contributions by: Alusine Barrie (EduGo Co-founder and Grow Salone Lead Trainer)

The question is: How Can Sierra Leone (& similar countries) handle education during this pandemic and other emergency situations?

Recently, I put up a Facebook status up asking how countries like Sierra Leone, who do not have the same technological capabilities as the U.S. will handle education if things are to go wrong? Many people commented that this is a serious concern and should be addressed. Under that same post, some questions from my former professor from MIT were posted:

  • What kind of tech is reasonable? For example, is radio most realistic, i.e. to broadcast basics on different channels or times per grade or subject?
  • Or is phone better channel? Or some combo? Or even book learning if materials available? Or older kids in family teaching younger?
  • Or is now the time to shift towards practical vocational crafts, like digging wells, improving fields, etc?

These were really good questions and as partners in a new Edtech company (some of the ideas actually born out of that MIT class), Alusine and I thought we should share some of our thoughts on how the country should handle things. We can’t cover everything and hence focused more so on the technology aspect, because we are working in that space and wanted to focus on how those mediums could be leveraged.

As an educator this is a question that has been on my mind since we heard about how the COVID19 is affecting many countries all over the world. Whereas with many countries, this is the first time in a very long time they are facing such a huge problem in their country, Sierra Leone is no stranger to this. I know we get exhausted hearing about this, but unfortunately the realities are that Sierra Leone has not had much time to take a breather with one devastating event after the other. The civil war led to more than 1,200 primary schools being wiped out and more than 65% of school-aged children out of school by the end of the war in 2001.

The outbreak of Ebola added to the devastation as children were kept out of school for a year. The only source of education most students received at that time were lessons read over the radio and a few programs on the main television station and provided by NGOs. Education organizations like Educaid did podcasts and Innovate Salone, did the Hack at Home challenge series. The Hack at Home initiative, which were a series of hands-on learning challenges that were sent out every two weeks in Whatsapp groups, Facebook and text messaging, engaged 100s of students in 12 districts all over Sierra Leone for one year. Winners of these challenges received mentorship from various leaders within the community, such as the Ebola Response coordinator, various directors of NGOs, and publicity via local media channels.

This will be a three-part blog post because I really wanted to share some hard data about Sierra Leone for people to really get the context.  I won’t dare to say we have the answers, but we are just sharing a brief snippet of what we are thinking. For more in-depth thoughts on what we think, we are available for consultations (haha).

In addition, we are sure the Government of Sierra Leone is hard at work to come up with a solution and we’ve seen some swift action by the government to try to prevent the virus from entering the country, especially since our neighbors, Liberia and Guinea now have the virus.

We know that when children are not in school, they lose the gains they made academically. In the U.S., this phenomena is referred to as the “summer slide.” This WILL happen with our children who will be having an indefinite break from school. We saw how far behind children were after the Ebola epidemic. We are still suffering the consequences to that till this day and the very same day I put up my status, the Sierra Leone government announced that by March 31st, all institutions will be closed until further notice due to the COVID-19.

So this is what we think…

  1. The Government

The government needs to arrange a series of regional meetings to come up with an emergency plan focused on education. The meetings should be at district level with educators/administrators. We know that there are ECGs (education coordination groups)  and depending on Sierra Leone’s gathering protocol (which currently states no more than 100 people), they need to set up a series of meetings by departments to create learning materials both physical (independent learning guides) and soft materials. For example, those who are comfortable putting together videos/audios can do so. Then depending on what is available in their regions, finding the best medium to distribute this content. We believe that the best approach is actually printing out physical materials, using mobile phone apps/sms, television, and radio (but we have some reservations about radio and we will talk about this later).

The reason why we say that each region or district must have its own unique plan, is because although Sierra Leone is a small country relative to some others, the districts are not a monolith. They are all different and in terms of resources when it comes to technology, they vary. Even with radio penetration, a 2016 BBC Media Action research stated:

Radio listenership is fractured, however, with no single station able to reach a national audience. Around 50 radio stations are currently broadcasting, with many of these having limited, local broadcast reach.

It is therefore important that each region does a mapping of its resources and come up with a contextualized plan. Often when the government and even some large organizations come up with idea, they want a blanket situation. We get it. It is sometimes more cost effective and also requires less human resources, but seeing as most educators will not be working, we believe that this is a great way for the government to actively involve these key players in drafting plans. From our work experience in districts, we have often heard complaints about decisions being centralized and then passed down. Often, district Ministries, Departments, Agencies and Councils, feel that they do not have a say in how things are handled. According to the law, Sierra Leone is a decentralized government and it is therefore time that the central government look to each district for solutions and then support those solutions with funds and manpower if need be.

2. Educators on our own

Beyond government mobilization, what can we as Sierra Leonean educators do? Let’s learn from our colleagues around the world mobilizing to help students and parents. Can you hold small, private tutoring session? Due to a slowdown in economic activity that may result from the pandemic, we understand that people’s earnings will be low, so charging reasonable prices will be extremely helpful. Can you record or create pamphlets that you can distribute to communities for children? Can you collaborate with some young people or Tele-centers to design learning materials that will be on DVDs or to print physical learning materials that can be distributed?  

We have been impressed by how educators in the U.S. are coming up with innovative ways to reach their students. There are Zoom and Skype calls, webinars, phone and tablet applications and so forth. People have access to YouTube videos online and can pretty much browse so many educational websites, that have immediately made content available to parents who are on lockdown. Some have even made schedules for parents that are home schooling. Unfortunately, a lot of Sierra Leoneans don’t have access to the internet.

Go to Part 2

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