On the morning of January 12, Reverend Spencer S. Togba, the principal of GW Gibson Public High School in Monrovia, worked at his desk as a line of parents and students sat outside his office. Orderly in their queue, and in close quarters that would have been unthinkable only a few months before, the parents fidgeted with their phones and passed the time in old wooden chairs. The average wait for a chance to register their children for school was well over an hour, and the line stretched out the door, into the courtyard, and nearly out the gate and into the busy street out front.
On this first day of school registration, Togba patiently filled out each paper form, thick with carbon copies. He affixed an official stamp from an ink pad, carefully folded the bundle, and then called in the next parent. He looked tired already.
"We expect the numbers to keep swelling," he said. "We expect our attendance to be huge because we are an almost tuition-free school."
Seats are limited, however. No more than 45 to a class, according to Ebola-related regulations. Asked what happens when the classes are full, Togba made a resigned motion of wiping his hands.
Just down the road, at Adventist High School, the scene could not be more different. The private Christian school, grades 7 to 12, was nearly empty. Tuition here tops out at $31,945 Liberian a year, or about $400 US, roughly the per capita GDP of Liberia.
On the first day of registration, principal Cecilia Fayia sat alone in her office. She has a secretary with a computer, a championship trophy for the boy's basketball team on her desk, and row upon row of empty classrooms. A few parents have stopped by, but not to sign up their children.
"They are coming in mostly for information on an installment plan," she said. "They ask how they can possibly pay the fee."
Long-closed Liberian schools are set to reopen February 2, but when they do, the education system could look vastly different than it did only a year ago. Most schools in Liberia are private, preferred by average Liberians based on a belief that the quality of religious education is superior to the secular public schools. But now those private schools are caught in a vicious cycle.
Ebola shut down businesses and sent home non-essential government workers. Without jobs, the parents don't have the money to pay for private schools. If a majority of parents are forced to send their children to public schools, the private schools will go broke as well; already the teachers at Adventist High School are complaining that they have no money to register their children either. The Liberian government floated a loan to private schools to pay some back wages, but it only covered the month of August.
"Some parents borrow money from their susu club," said Fayia, referring to the informal lending groups popular in Africa and the Caribbean. "And if they are business minded, they can get a bank loan. But this is very few. The best solution is that the government can assist."
The school situation is the talk of the street, and it seems every Liberian has an opinion and plan about what is to be done. Matthew S. Bestman is a public school teacher himself, in the Bush Rod Island neighborhood of Monrovia. "The government should pay for six months of private school," he said. "The government needs to come in and subsidize. The loan from the central bank is not enough."
But Prinicpal Fayia refers to this as "just talk." There is no official plan waiting in the wings. In the meantime, her boss has told her to create a seven month tuition payment plan, an unprecedented step. At other schools, entrepreneurs are stepping in to fill the gap. The vice principal of instruction at Matilda Newport Junior High School is offering loans at a 25 percent interest rate per month.
But should students be going back to school at all? President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf ordered all schools closed in July, and as recently as mid-December, schools were not officially set to reopen until Ebola had been completely eradicated. To inhibit a resurgent Ebola outbreak, new regulations are in place: three feet between desks, long sleeves during sporting events, isolation wards and chlorine buckets everywhere. "Part of the challenge is that we have got to be serious about the mechanics of safety for Ebola," Togba said.
On balance, though, parents seem just as concerned about cost as safety, and local teachers and education leaders across the country expressed support for the schools reopening. Edwin Kwakpae is the county education officer for Grand Bassa, home of Buchanan, Liberia's third-largest city. An intense man with small round glasses, he describes himself as "in the army for education," and is proud that he still teaches language, arts and social studies in addition to his administrator duties.
"We have to get started," he said. "In the beginning of class, as a teacher, you realize that when an assignment is due at a certain time, and you postpone it all the time, most of the students say 'okay, I can relax.' If we keep pushing, pushing, delay for our students, the children will stay in the streets. We just have to get started."
Kwakpae didn't rest during the outbreak. He taught in the local "Ebola is Real" public education campaign, and kept his schools clean and maintained in case the government reopened them early. "I don't want to be caught unaware," he said. He encouraged children to listen to "School on the Radio," a national initiative to teach classes through radio broadcasts. He admitted, though, like many teachers across the country with whom I spoke, that few children probably listened. Some families do not own a radio, others live too far away to receive the signal. Most children, however, were engaged in street selling to make ends meet for the family instead of learning.
No matter where the children are in their preparations, he is optimistic, and just wants to begin classes. "If my President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, says we can go back to school, I am hopeful for 2015," he said.
Kwakpae is fortunate to be starting classes in an enviable position: Grand Bassa County has not had a confirmed case of Ebola since December 12. But even in towns hit hard by the crisis, parents and teachers are eager to get back to school.
Ebola decimated Unification City, an audaciously named hamlet on the main highway between Monrovia and the country's upland interior. The nearby village of Dolo Town was quarantined. Bethel Heart of Faith church lost its pastor and eight other church elders. Pastor Kortu Koilor is the new spiritual leader of the parish, but he is also a teacher of religious education and literature at the local high school. If anyone knows the dangers of confined groups, it is Koilor, and yet he said: "Parents are still skeptical about school, but with triage, and checking students before class, it is safe. Hand washing will continue forever. It is part of the culture now."
Koilor's youth minister, Thomas Ballah, agreed. Ballah is an elementary school teacher, and similarly wished to return to the classroom. "We did elections, we should go back to school," he said. "Children are forgetting their classes. They only know Ebola."
Back at GW Gibson High School in Monrovia, literature teacher Kesselley Johnson sat outside and watched the parents come and go. He held court with a small contingent of past students, and they discussed the state of the schools, the passing of Ebola, and the rumors that the US military came to Liberia with less than honorable intentions. Johnson is glad that schools are opening, but suspicious that classes will be kept to the 45 students supposedly mandated by Ebola regulations.
"When schools open, our biggest challenge will be the large capacity," he said. "Give me your phone number, and I will call you in February, and text you a picture of 55, 60 students in my class."
Johnson's favorite book is George Orwell's Animal Farm, because it so perfectly describes Liberian society. He isn't concerned about Ebola because it is a problem he can address. "This Ebola is just a nominal factor we can control," he said. "Let us be realistic. There are many factors to a student learning. We have an arcane system of blackboards with chalk. We have old age books in the library. It is a lack of facilities and resources that hurts the common people."
It is an indication of how low Liberia sunk during the Ebola crisis that a return to discussing endemic poverty is a sign of progress.