ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Liberia's education system was a shambles before the Ebola crisis. And then in July, the government shut down schools to try to contain the virus. Now the schools could remain closed until at least spring, leaving one and a half million children at loose ends. The education ministry has been working with a non-profit and with UNICEF to come up with a solution. They've organized educational courses for the radio. As NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports, it's not clear that children are listening to the programming.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Join the Ministry of Education...
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: It's a catchy tune and it's meant to attract children to listen to lessons on the radio in Liberia.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
QUIST-ARCTON: Enthusiastic and motivated, Florence Allen Jones used to teach in Washington, D.C. before coming back home to Liberia. She's part of the education ministries teaching-by-radio team.
FLORENCE ALLEN JONES: Our programs are child friendly. They're programs that you would love to listen to. Like, for example, if it were teaching verbs - (singing) all action words are verbs. They make lessons superb. Hi ho the cheerio, all action words are verbs.
QUIST-ARCTON: But few children have access to a radio. Wealthy parents have had hired home tutors for their kids. But many other youngsters have taken to peddling petty goods, like trinkets or doughnuts, on the streets of Monrovia, to try to earn a little money for their families while schools are closed.
J. EMMANUEL MILTON: If you walk the streets of Monrovia, now you will see little children below the ages of 5 and 9, selling plastic bags and candies and what have you. This is not what it's supposed to be doing.
QUIST-ARCTON: J. Emmanuel Milton is another member of Liberia teaching-by-radio team. He warns that there are other dangers for children, many of whom are not being supervised during the day.
MILTON: It poses dangers, especially for the girl child, OK? Girl children who are little, you know, above 15, 17 18 - they could easily get pregnant when they are not properly advised, when they are not engaged. Even the boys, they could engage in some wayward, you know, activities.
QUIST-ARCTON: Even before Ebola arrived in Liberia, the education system was a mess. That's how President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf described it last year and said an overhaul was needed. Primary school attendance is mandatory, but enforcement is lax, and classes are overcrowded. Often, teachers fail to show up. The UN says about 40 percent of Liberia's four and a half million people are literate. The radio classes are meant to help take up the slack while schools remain closed.
(SOUNDBITE OF LIBERIA TEACHING-BY-RADIO PROGRAM)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: A country is a geographical location or landmark for which to which one belongs that is self-governed or has obtained independence.
QUIST-ARCTON: This is the beginning of a 20-minute social studies lesson broadcast one recent afternoon on state radio. Not exactly riveting - worthy, but frankly, dull. So are kids tuning in? We hit the streets of downtown Monrovia to find out. 10-year-old Musu was playing with friends on the sidewalk along a noisy, busy street.
Musu, are you listening to school-by-radio - lessons-by-radio - classes-by-radio?
QUIST-ARCTON: Have you heard of it?
QUIST-ARCTON: We're rounding up as many children as we can. So far no one - no, no, no, no, no - nobody seems to have heard about it.
Finally, we met 13-year-old Blessing Famata Johns. She was chatting with her friend.
BLESSING FAMATA JOHNS: (Speaking foreign language) (Through translator) Yes, I've listened to that. I listen to them telling children how to take exercise in the morning and how to relax and wake up every morning and be strong. I listened to it once.
QUIST-ARCTON: But Blessing says she helps her mother sell cooked food early in the morning, so she doesn't have time to follow radio classes. Many adults say they can't afford a radio or batteries for their kids to tune in. J. Emmanuel Milton says he hopes this does not become - as during Liberia's long Civil War - another lost year for education.
MILTON: That's the reason why we are saying look, don't turn your attention away from your lessons. Keep your books around, keep your notebooks around, listen to teaching-by-radio in the evening or at night.
QUIST-ARCTON: But rather than sit by the radio and study, it seems many children are out on the streets selling goods and hanging out with other kids, as if they're on a long break. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Monrovia.
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