RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In West Africa, millions of children have been unable to attend schools for months because of Ebola. It's a part of the world where literacy rates are low and educational systems are still recovering from years of conflict. The fear now is that many children, especially girls, will never go back to school. NPR's Jon Hamilton spent time with a family in Liberia whose dreams have been put on hold.
JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: The Saygbe family lives in a tidy, single-story house about an hour's drive from Monrovia.
LINDA BARROLLE-SAYGBE: OK, come in. This is my little home.
HAMILTON: Linda Barrolle-Saygbe works for the Ministry of Justice. Her husband is a computer forensic investigator.
L. BARROLLE-SAYGBE: I have my husband, me, my mom, my two girls and my boy Shalom.
HAMILTON: Shalom is still a baby. The girls are 12 and 18. They were attending a private school in Monrovia before Ebola arrived. Barrolle-Saygbe says she had been looking forward to her older daughter Sharon's senior year.
L. BARROLLE-SAYGBE: And I was so excited to see my girl in her senior outfit. And now that's not happening 'til March, who knows?
HAMILTON: March is when some government officials say schools might reopen. In the meantime, Barrolle-Saygbe is keeping her daughters at home.
L. BARROLLE-SAYGBE: They don't go out. They home. The only place we go is church.
HAMILTON: Barrolle-Saygbe says her daughters study for two hours each afternoon. The rest of the time they don't have much to do.
L. BARROLLE-SAYGBE: They're bored, you know, they're bored because they miss their friends and stuff like that. Well, every day here is only mommy, daddy, grandmom, you know, (laughter) nothing exciting.
HAMILTON: Issabelle, who wants to be a journalist, says she misses her teachers. Sharon, who plans to studies information technology, says life without school is sad.
SHARON BARROLLE-SAYGBE: Very sad for me.
S. BARROLLE-SAYGBE: I miss the fun (laughter) of having class.
HAMILTON: Barrolle-Saygbe says she was in favor of closing schools to prevent the spread of Ebola, but now she worries that her daughters could lose an entire year of education.
L. BARROLLE-SAYGBE: The time is too long and if they are not doing anything, they will fall way, way back. And you know children, you got to keep them like this.
HAMILTON: The Saygbe family represents one end of the spectrum in Liberia - educated parents with good jobs who keep a close watch on their children. At the other end are families in which parents can't read or write and have no choice but to leave their kids unattended during the day. Laurent Duvillier of UNICEF says keeping these children out of school probably isn't protecting them from Ebola.
LAURENT DUVILLIER: The kids play everywhere. We don't know where they go. They're roaming, and, actually, it's increasing the risk because we never know if they may enter the home and not wash their hands beforehand.
HAMILTON: Many children have gone to work while schools are closed and Ebola is hurting the economy. Duvillier worries that families will decide to keep them working when schools reopen. He's especially worried about what families will do with girls who, until recently, received much less schooling than boys.
DUVILLIER: They may be tempted to keep the eldest girl at home to help them or to wash clothes for the neighbors. And that's what you don't want. We don't want those girls to drop out of school because of Ebola.
HAMILTON: Duvillier says the longer schools remain closed the greater the risk that kids will drop out, but schools can't reopen until they are sure students will be safe from Ebola. He says that means taking measures like showing teachers how to prevent infections and installing handwashing stations at the entrance of every school.
DUVILLIER: Even that, logistically speaking, to ensure that every school across the country will have that ready for the opening is a very big challenge.
HAMILTON: During Liberia's civil war, which ended in 2003, some children missed years of school and literacy rates plummeted. Liberian officials say they're trying to make sure Ebola doesn't have a similar effect. Jon Hamilton, NPR News.
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