Excited Azizamatu goes back to school after coronavirus disruption

Photo: Azizmatu’s mom and dad bids farewell to her as she goes to school for the first time since COVID-19 was reported in Sierra Leone ©NaCOVERC /Alpha Daramy Sesay 2020

On a raining Monday evening, fifteen-year-old Azizmatu Koroma irons her purple-checked uniform with an old charcoal powered iron at a busy tailoring shop near her house in earnest preparation to resume her school classes the follow day.

As a school prefect of the Methodist Girl’s High School in Freetown, Azizmatu has to be neat. The Ministry of Basic and  Secondary Education has given her and other 403,458 pupils nationwide the green light to go back to school after several months of disruption due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Returning to school for Azizmatu comes with feelings of nostalgia and apprehension.

“I have lost a lot of lessons,” says Koroma. “I am excited about going back to school to cover the remaining topics” she stressed.

The next day, Azizmatu’s school routine begins with her catching up with a public tricycle as early as 7:00 am. She can’t afford to miss her timing. If she does, she might not easily get a taxi. If she is lucky to find one, the cost could double the normal fare for the same route.

Photo Azizmatu’s favorite means of transportation to school is a tricycle popularly known as “Kekeh” © NaCOVERC

As soon as she stepped her feet on the school soil, she realized that COVID-19 has brought about many adaptive changes including the ongoing compulsory hand washing protocol and having their face masks on. At the school’s main entrance stood two giant handwashing facilities at either side of the walkway. Within two minute walks to her classroom, she finds another mauve veronica bucket with a bar of soap placed 10 meters outside her classroom. So before she enters her class, she like the other pupils and teachers, has to wash her hands properly with soap and clean water.

Photo: Handwashing is made mandatory each time a teacher or a pupil enters the class © NaCOVERC

The school is practicing hand washing hygiene and adherence to social distancing evident in the class sitting arrangements.

Before now,the school used to have eight separate classes for JSS pupils. But, in order to ideally make space for the one-meter social distancing recommendation, the school administration has resorted to have each class divided into two.

Azizmatu’s class which used to accommodate 54 pupils now has been apparently splited into two with each class now holding half of that figure,” says Mr. Alie Boston Bangura, who teaches Language Arts.

That morning, he was teaching Literary Devices when I briefly interrupted the session to seek his consent to take photos of the class.

Photo: Covid-19 pandemic prevented Azizmatu and 403,558 other pupils from going to school for months © NaCOVERC 

“To be honest, some of the girls were overwhelmed by seeing their friends for the first time after the COVID-19 break. They couldn’t resist the possibility to hug and exchange pleasantries. We were however quick to remind them and ourselves to maintain the one-meter social distancing. We also reinforced the message that because we are back in school doesn’t mean we are out of the woods” Mr. Bangura added.

Covid-19 has changed everything- from the way we socialize to the way teaching and learning is conducted. Because of it, the school morning devotions which is one deep-rooted tradition in the country’s school system, has been completely abandoned in minimizing the virus transmission. Normally, school devotions would allow a large crowd of teachers and pupils to converge in very close proximity for 30 minutes to pray and share relevant announcements.

Photo: At the normal time, this empty assembly field holds 1,300 pupils during morning devotion © NaCOVER/ Alpha Daramy Sesay 2020  

The virus can spread through small liquid droplets that come out when an infected person coughs or sneezes.“This is why as part of this years school reopening protocols, we have agreed with the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Examination to put on hold the morning devotions in order to limit the person-to-person transmission in school.” Says Solomon Jamiru, Spokesperson, National COVID-19 Emergency Response Centre (NaCOVERC).

Azizmatu’s school like the 403,458 schools which have resumed teaching and learning, have to cope with the new normal. This means that they have to put on facemask for most part of the 6-7 hours they spend in school. They will also have to keep to the minimum distance of 1 meter between themselves and their friends in addition to their regularly hand washing practice.

Azizmatu is happy to return to school in order to make up for lost time as she prepares for her Basic Education Certificate Examination, the mandatory senior secondary school entry examination due in September.